By Bill Clark
Minimize feeding efforts with a method that offers multiple benefits to
livestock and land.
What in the world is this all about? Simply put, bale grazing means that you stack hay during summer in a position that allows you to feed cows a controlled amount of hay by simply moving a few feet of electric fence.
My family operates a small cow/calf operation near Roff, OK. My wife Betty, our son Garrett and I do most of the work on the ranch. We all have “town jobs” so most of our work is done in the evenings or on weekends. Consequently we are always looking for ways to cut down labor, especially time spent feeding. During the winter it’s usually dark by the time we get home or if we feed in the morning it seems there’s always something that makes us late for work.
While visiting with Hugh Aljoe, Consultation Program Manager for the Noble Foundation, about minimizing inputs on the ranch he suggested that bale grazing might work well for our operation, and introduced me to the concept. We’ve been bale grazing for the past five years (except for last year when we didn’t make any hay) and have learned a lot from our mistakes and successes. We prefer to leave grass standing and have the cows do the harvesting, but for those years that we have been fortunate enough to make some hay bale grazing has worked well. I would like to share with you what our experience has been.
Benefits we have found:
• Labor is greatly reduced. We have to haul the hay out of the field anyway so positioning the bales to graze doesn’t take much longer than stacking them in a hay pen. The real labor savings comes during the winter. We can give our cows another row of hay in less than ten minutes. Since we usually let them have three to four days supply we spend about 30 minutes a week haying our cows.
• Tractor wear and tear is reduced. Probably one of the hardest jobs your tractor has is getting started on those cold days to only run for a few minutes. If we net wrap our bales, we will use a tractor to turn the bales on their end once a month. Turning the bales on end makes it easier to get the wrap off but we wait until we are ready to feed them since they shed water better on their side.
• Land fertility is improved. I’ve always been told that baling your hay is mining your nutrients. Bale grazing is an inexpensive way to put those nutrients back to work in an area on your ranch that needs them the most. If done properly you will see vast improvements in fertility and production of the site where bales are fed. Research has shown that carbon can be increased three fold in the top one foot of soil in just a few years of bale grazing.
• Sanitation is improved. Instead of feeding in the same muddy spot, cows are feeding on a clean area each time they are allowed to have another row of bales. The late Dr. G. T. Easley, who was the long time veterinarian on the famed Turner Ranch near Sulphur, OK once told me the vast majority of calf health problems are caused by poor sanitation. Calves that lay in mud and manure and nurse dirty udders are much more likely to get sick. Dr. Easley said calf scours were virtually nonexistent on the ranch he was raised in New Mexico because cows were widely dispersed with a stocking rate of a dozen cows to the section. In addition, calves can walk under the single electric wire and lie in a clean area while using the bales as windbreaks on cold days.
So how do you get started? Site selection would be a good place to begin. Concentrating cows means there will be a concentration of nutrients. Pick a well-drained site that is shallow, rocky or just is not producing much forage for lack of fertility or organic matter. We have fed on a really thin soiled rocky hill for two years in a row. It is now covered with Bermuda grass and produces several times more than it ever has, (when it rains that is).
We probably made our biggest mistakes while learning how to position the bales. Placing the bales too close together causes many problems. It gets muddier and the cows back into the fence on the next row while backing out of feeders. It seems they are more likely to break into the next row if bales are too close together. As long as you are improving your place you should spread them out as much as you practically can. Placing the bales about 25 to 30 feet apart and positioning rows every 35 to 40 feet seems to work for us. Our bale trailer hauls eight four foot bales so we put eight bales in each row and try to dump them as close as possible to where they will be placed. Getting the rows straight really helps with fencing so we usually take a little extra time placing the bales. The best trick for getting them straight is mowing the area you plan to feed on before you dump the bales. You can use your mower to skip a place that shows where your bales should go. A 15 foot batwing works really well as you can mow two strips and then skip a foot as a marker.
Should you use string or net? We have done both. The easiest feeding year we had was when we baled our hay with sisal twine. It doesn’t need to be removed as it seems to just disappear when the cows eat the bale but there is a drawback. If you set a sisal twine bale down for a month or two you are committed to leaving it there because the twine begins to rot quickly and the bale will fall apart if you try to move it. Net is a little more work because it needs to be removed. However it protects the hay better and you can come back and pick up the bales later if needed.
Learning how much hay to give the cows and when to open up a new row determines how much waste you will have. We try to not give the cows more than three to four days supply of which the last day they go a little hungry. This makes them clean up as much hay as possible. The longer it takes for them to clean up a bale, the more waste there will be. If you have time to move the wire every other day and your cow to bale ratio is right, you will have very little waste. Based upon our experience a four by five foot bale for every 20 cows seems to be about right. At that ratio, if she eats 30 pounds a day, they will eat most of the bale the first day and clean up on the second. So if you have 40 cows, make your rows two bales wide. Of course, how much they consume has a lot to do with the quality of the hay and the weather. If possible, stack your hay to give your cows the least quality hay early in the feeding season and save the best for the worst part of winter.
Lastly, setting up your electric fence properly is the key to this methods success. The last thing you want to do is drive up to your bale grazing site and find your cows tearing up the whole hay stack. It’s important to have a quality charger and to take a little time to train your cows to electric fence. You don’t want to turn loose your entire hungry herd in a pasture with just a single strand of poly wire separating them from your year’s hay supply if they aren’t accustomed to electric fencing. Spend a little extra money and get a brand name low impedance solar charger. We usually start with an existing barbwire fence down one side and an electric fence down the other. We drive t-posts down the long side in the middle of each row of bales about 20 feet away from the hay. Then we use an electric fence reel with poly wire to reel the fence up to the next t-post and another reel to block the end to keep the cows out of the next row. While giving the cows another row we usually feed them a little to bait them away from the hay. Unhook the charger and move it to the next t-post, reel up the fence on the long side to the next t-post and move the gate wire on the end to the next row. If you have trouble keeping the cows out of the stack while moving the gate wire use two gate reels and put up another gate wire on the next row. Do this before you take the gate wire down next to the last row. Finally, put step in posts on the gate wire every 20 to 25 feet as this is where the fence will get pressure. We have had good luck sticking the posts in the next row of bales where it is too rocky to get a post in the ground. Since we use bale feeders, the last step is to cut the net off and roll the feeders down the hill 30 to 40 feet to the next bale. It takes us less than 10 minutes to feed a row of hay and our tractor is still in the barn.
If your time is short in the winter or you are simply looking for a way to decrease costs in your operation, give bale grazing a try. I recommend that you start small the first year while perfecting your own methods that will work best on your ranch.
For more information or questions about bale grazing feel free to Great Plains Kubota or visit www.greatplainskubota.com