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Bale Grazing Checks The Boxes For Three Canadian Producers

10 November 2020

Beef Cattle Research Council

Beef farmers everywhere are looking to reduce costs, decrease their workload, and improve the carrying capacity of their pastures. Bale grazing is a production practice that can help.

There is a learning curve with any grazing method, especially when it’s planned for winter, arguably one of the most unpredictable seasons. Three producers across Canada share their experiences with bale grazing, provide their top tips, and explain why extending the winter grazing period has been a game changer on their farms.

John Duynisveld operates a beef and sheep farm on 250 acres of pasture land on the north shore of Nova Scotia. He calves his herd of 25 to 30 cattle in May and June, and markets his grass-finished beef directly to consumers.

John says they started doing things differently on their farm after his dad attended a grazing seminar more than 30 years ago. Later, when he was working on his Master’s degree, grazing management became a big focus once again. “As you delve into more ways of trying to extend your pasture and ways to be more cost effective and labour efficient, bale grazing becomes sort of an obvious choice,” he says. They’ve been bale grazing for 20 years and purchase dry hay from a neighbour who sets the bales up in the field for Duynisveld.

“We lay the bales out in a strip 25 feet apart in one direction and 80 feet apart in the other,” John explains. He uses electric fence to restrict cattle movement and typically moves them twice a week. “We choose fields that aren’t overly steep and have a heavy soil that is good for binding nutrients.” He adds that they move the strips where bales are placed each year and over time the pasture has demonstrated uniform fertility and growth.

Shifting away from barn feeding created a few pleasant surprises, including how clean his cattle stay while bale grazing outside of confinement. “I think it reflects well on the cattle’s natural ability,” he says, adding that cattle are fairly resilient. “One year we had about four feet of snow in the fields that we were bale grazing and it still worked,” John remarks. Only the tops of the bales were visible and John used an axe to open up the bales but the cattle continued grazing.

Excess moisture can be a challenge, so John ensures bales are placed on the round sides rather than the flat end. He removes netwrap at that time as well. “If bales are on the flat end, they act like a sponge and soak up moisture, turning into a block of ice,” he explains. He finds bale grazing helps mitigate mud problems during spring thaw and the fall period. “If you’ve done a good job on pasture management prior, you have a pretty good sod,” he says, adding that giving his herd springtime access to areas they’ve already bale grazed also helps combat mud. “I’m surprised that more people don’t do it,” John concludes.

Top Tips

  • Use narrow strips to quickly set up paddocks. “Long, narrow strips give you flexibility for grazing or bale grazing,” John says. They use strips that tend to be 50 meters to 100 meters wide.
  • Set up at least one extra wire (move) in advance. John’s farm sometimes receives a heavy snow right around the freezing mark that will stick to poly wire, dragging it to the ground. “If you have one to two wires set up ahead and they do break in, they only have access to that,” John adds.
  • Stick fibreglass fence posts into the next row of bales, which eliminates the issue of pounding posts in frozen ground.

“We started bale grazing to cut down on our workload,” says John Chuiko, explaining the motivation behind first implementing the practice on their farm 15 years ago. John and Deanne operate a 350 head cow-calf and long yearling operation, with calving taking place in May and June. They say bale grazing has helped them work as closely to nature as possible. “Yardage costs go down and it’s amazing what it does for our perennial pastures and for our soil and grass volume,” he adds.

The Chuikos purchase their feed and set up enough bales in each pod to provide 20 days of grazing for their cattle. “All of our feed is weighed coming in so we know exactly how many pounds of forage is out there and how much our herd needs daily so we know how many days our pods should last,” Deanne explains, but adds that it isn’t a hard and fast rule. They use feed test results to help them build their pods, adding in greenfeed and hay of differing quality, depending on what they’ve purchased for that year. They use temporary electric fence to restrict access if their pods contain more than 20 days worth of feed.

The Chuikos set up bale pods in specific areas that need improvement. “With our planned grazing system we keep track of our grazing days in the summer time. We’re in our pastures every day and we know where we need to add the nutrients and where we need fertility,” Deanne says.

They have found bale grazing works with all types of cattle including bulls, market cows, yearlings and cow-calf pairs, as long as they have access to adequate shelter and water. They rely on natural shelter and point out that by placing bales 38 feet apart, that acts as a windbreak as well. “We keep our calves on a lot longer now until late March so our cow herd will always have access to water when calves are on them,” John says. They work closely with their vet to ensure they are meeting the needs of their herd.

A challenge they need to work around is wildlife, particularly dealing with bale damage from elk herds. “I would love to put all of the hay out where I want to in October and get the net and twine off and be done, but that’s leaving too much risk,” John explains. They instead plan to first graze pods that are at greatest risk for elk damage or will wait to place bales on susceptible ground until it’s closer to grazing time.

John and Deanne are clear that there is no “one size fits all” to planned grazing and bale grazing. “There’s no recipe to follow that I see,” John says. “Play around with it, see what works for you.”

Top Tips

  • “We’ll take the tractor and plow a snow ridge and I’ll build the fence in the hardened snow ridge,” Deanne says, when they need to use electric fence to split up a pod.
  • Remove netwrap and twine before it freezes to save time. Last year the Chuikos hired students who removed netwrap from 800 bales in a single afternoon.
  • Bale grazing can help manage brush encroachment. “The cows did a nice number on them,” Deanne says, explaining how a bale grazing experiment worked in an area that was becoming overgrown with brush.

Hans Myhre runs a commercial and purebred Charolais operation near Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba. For the past 15 years, he has used bale grazing for part or all of the winter as a cost saving measure.

“I started looking at practices that could save winter costs,” Hans says. “When you figure it out, winter feeding is the biggest expense in the operation, so anything we could do to trim that is helpful,” he continues. He soon found the improvements were not limited to his bottom line. “As we went along you started to see the benefits to the land,” he explains, and adds that increased grazing capacity was obvious soon after implementation.

Over time, his extended grazing system has shifted and evolved. For example, when they first started, Hans only allowed cattle access to three or four days of feed, whereas now they allow their herd up to a month’s worth at a time. “If it is going to be more than a month’s [supply of] feed, we will select an extra site or put a temporary fence in,” he says.

They rotate their sites each winter, choosing places that will benefit from a fertility boost as well as areas that will provide shelter for his cows and herd bulls. “We look for sites that can provide natural shelter for cattle to get into,” Hans explains. Wind exposure is a challenge on his farm and while Hans would like to place bales on some sites, he avoids areas that are too exposed to west winds.

While they have used hay, Myhre primarily purchases bales of grass seed production by-products from timothy, rye grass or fescue. “It’s a lot cheaper than hay so you don’t worry about the waste so much,” Hans says and adds the extra residue cattle leave behind actually creates more improvement to the pasture. He tries to create a balanced ration by bale grazing and will incorporate low quality feed and supplement with silage or grain if needed. “Don’t think that you have to use high quality feed to do it. So-called waste might be higher on low quality stuff but the benefits you leave behind are higher with more residue,” Hans says. “It’s really surprising how much fertility and water holding capacity you can add into your pastures just by leaving all that residue,” Hans adds.

Top Tips

  • When possible, buy bales that are bound with sisal string, which is a natural twine that will break down on its own over time. “I’d rather pay an extra $1 a bale for sisal string than find someone to pay a dollar a bale to remove it,” Hans says.
  • Place your bales in late summer or early fall. “We have ours set up now already and that hasn’t always happened,” Hans explains. “Sometimes we’ve had to plow through several feet of snow. It doesn’t make it impossible but it would increase your cost for one thing,” he adds.

Producers continue to discover new ways of incorporating bale grazing as a method to reduce expenses, improve forage stands, and extend grazing. Like any system, there is no right way or wrong way to bale graze and practical experience will shape how extended grazing works in the future.

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