Once September is over we shift into high gear to get our bale grazing set up for the winter. The race each fall for me is to get the bales in and placed before the twines freeze down. Pulling twine is so much easier in the fall than it is in January.
Bale grazing is a form of winter feeding but with one big difference. We use a grazing mentality. We place all of our winter hay supply out in a pasture in a checkerboard pattern. We remove all the twines, and ration off the feed throughout the winter with an electric wire. There is a huge cost savings behind bale grazing that most people are unable to see because we have been trained all our life to improve on efficiencies. And I know our industry is good at being efficient. Too bad we are not as good at being profitable.
The big issue for most producers is getting over the issue of “wasted feed” left on the ground. My advice to you is to get over it! I would rather waste 10 or 15 cents per head per day on “wasted feed” than I would burn up 50 cents per head per day in machinery and labour costs. I have had many producers come up to me and thank me for introducing them to bale grazing. They had heard me speak at a conference or a seminar and tried it. And it worked. The most common remark is, “I will never go back to traditional feeding.”
Bale grazing works. It is low labour. It is low capital. And it is a very economical way to feed livestock during the winter months. But, make sure you keep it economical. I know of producers who try to reproduce bale grazing without understanding the economics of it, and it proves not to be economical. Why does it work?
Low labour: Most of the labour is done in the fall when the weather is nice and the job is easy. All the twines are removed before they are frozen to the bale or the ground. I can pull twine at 40 bales an hour in the fall compared to maybe 15 or 20 bales an hour in the winter. Getting this work done in the fall, saves us a lot of time throughout the winter. Instead of going out with a tractor and feeding for an hour every day in the winter, I spend about an hour a week moving an electric fence on foot. I might take a vehicle out to the bale-grazing site, but it is usually shut off during the fence move.
Low capital: You do not need much in the way of equipment to feed this way. In fact, you do not even need to own a tractor. I don’t. If you have a self-unloading bale truck deliver the hay to your pasture, all you need is something to tip the bales over with. I own a bale truck so I can grab the bales and place them.
Now one of the important factors in keeping this economical is how many times you touch the bales with a piece of equipment. I only touch them once, if that. The bales need to be delivered to the pasture and ideally spread and placed as they are unloaded. Only touch the bales once with a piece of equipment if you have to at all. Some years I hire the farmer to deliver the bales to me with his tractor and wagon. In this scenario, I never touch the bales with a piece of equipment. Other times they will unload them in the pasture and I will have to spread them out into rows and tip them over.
Here is what not to do. Don’t have the bales delivered to the hay yard. Don’t unload the truck and put them in stacks. Don’t load them up and haul them out to the pasture. Don’t place the bales. Finally, don’t use a tractor to pick them up allowing someone to remove the twine or net wrapping. How many times didn’t you touch each bale with a piece of equipment? Only touch the bales once!
Economical: It is a very economical way of feeding because it reduces the labour and equipment cost compared to traditional feeding. I have lowered my yardage costs associated with feeding cattle to less than 10 cents per head per day compared to a traditional yardage from 45 to 75 cents per head per day. Yardage is only the costs associated with feeding the animals. This does not include the cost of the feed. It is the labour and equipment costs in the act of feeding. That is a pretty good cost savings over a winter. Even add in the “wasted feed” to that cost. Another 15 cents per head per day and it is still more economical to bale graze than to start a tractor every day.
Have you been wondering why I refer to the “wasted feed” in quotations every time? This is because this mentality of “wasted feed” is ridiculous. Any extra residue left on the ground in the right place adds a great deal of fertility to the soil. It also improves water-holding capacity, reduces erosion, protects the soil from compaction and many other beneficial bonuses. So this 15 cents per head per day of “wasted grass” is not a waste at all. It is a tremendous soil improvement that continues to pay you back for years to come. Look at it as a long-term investment to your soil. I can double the production of a piece of land by bale grazing on it. The growth the following year is incredible.
Bale grazing saves me time, money and wear and tear on my equipment. It also improves my pastures, which in turn increases my profit. If you have to winter feed, bale grazing is a no-brainer. Learn about it, try it, get good at it and maybe you will be the one saying, “I will never go back to traditional feeding” And stop stressing over “wasted feed!”