October 20, 2023
By Christine Gelley, Ohio State University Extension
Extending the grazing season is one of the best ways to save money on feed and reduce labor on the farm. In order to add grazing days to the calendar, farm managers must approach grazing with a plan and the willingness to be flexible. Rotationally grazing, utilizing multiple forage species and growing seasons, being thoughtful about stocking rates, adding fertility when needed, and having plentiful fence and water will increase chances for success.
Whether you have the ability to graze for a couple extra weeks or a couple extra months, the benefits of preparation will show up in the money you save on harvesting or purchasing supplemental feed. Regardless of how diligent you are about your grazing plans, it is difficult to provide sufficient grazing for livestock 365 days a year in Ohio and eventually you’ll be relying on stored feeds to meet the needs of your livestock. There are still benefits to utilizing your pasture rotations even while feeding hay. Bale grazing may be a practice to consider.
What is bale grazing?
Simply put, bale grazing consists of stockpiling pasture in late summer to early fall and then strategically placing round bales throughout your pastures before the weather turns sloppy and cold. When you are ready to begin grazing the stockpile and supplementing with hay, you strip graze the pasture where the round bales are set. Utilizing temporary fencing, you can allocate an area containing several bales and allow the livestock access to both the stockpiled pasture and the hay. Once the hay is consumed, you move the animals forward to the next section of pasture.
This practice is often successful at reducing damage to pasture from hoof traffic caused by feeding and drinking in the same place throughout the winter. It also allows for nutrient dispersal from the hay and livestock manure without the need to gather, compost, and spread manure in another season. Due to less mud and manure accumulation while bale grazing, animals that are due to deliver young when conditions can be harsh will likely have fewer complications than if they were in a condensed and damaged sacrifice lot.
Having the bales placed in the pasture when the weather is nice will save time and frustration later. The trek out to the pasture should be safer and easier when you only need to take yourself and a pocketknife along to feed the livestock. The livestock will be happy to see you as they anticipate moving to a fresh section of pasture. It will be easier to account for each animal’s wellbeing when their grazing space is allocated just to last long enough to consume the bales you provided.
However, along with the benefits, there can be challenges with bale grazing.
There will be nutrient and dry matter loss from the hay while bale grazing. Ohio’s humid climate and fluctuating temperatures during the winter will cause dry hay to draw moisture from all directions. If you don’t get a good freeze, the bottom portion of the bale will have significant loss from saturated ground. Net wrapped or plastic wrapped hay will have less loss than twine tied bales, but the wrap can also be difficult to remove if conditions are icy.
Does this mean you will need more hay on hand to account for the loss? Maybe, but maybe not if there is grass still to graze from being stockpiled. Fortunately, the hay that is lost will return nutrients to the soil. It will also leave behind bare spots where the forage underneath the bale was smothered. It may grow back if allowed to rest or it may need reseeded when the seasons begins to change again.
Another concern is hay history. Do you know where the bales came from?
If you made the bales yourself, hopefully you’ll make note of the harvest timing and any potential concerns with the hay. Think about when the animals will need feed of best quality and stage your best bales to be accessible to align with those needs. It is common to see quality differences from one field to another and from harvest timing too.
If you had struggles with weeds, you can anticipate having greater hay waste due to lower intake and you should be prepared to scout the feeding areas in the seasons to follow, because the hay will likely contain weed seed. Another concern is herbicide carryover. Some herbicides may have residual that stays in the hay while stored and this hay should not be moved off the applicator’s farm. Make note of any field and resulting bales that may have associated herbicide activity and avoid staging those bales in sensitive areas of the pasture. These restrictions will be described on the herbicide label and should be reviewed before application.
Hay without a history is a mystery. Bale grazing with purchased hay may lead to unforeseen issues in seasons to come. Gather information before you buy hay to determine if it is worth the money to buy and the labor to transport it. If you have doubts about the hay, have it tested before you buy to make sure it is sufficient for your livestock and do not use it for bale grazing. Many harmful weeds have been spread through naive hay sales.
Bale grazing has potential for the mindful grazing manager and success may vary from farm to farm and year to year. If you’d like to give it a try with caution, maybe set out enough bales to last a month and see what you think. The number of bales you will need to last a given time frame will depend on the species of livestock, the number you have, their lifecycle needs, and the quality of your hay.
Additional information about bale grazing feasibility and best management practices can be accessed from a variety of Land Grant Universities. Reach out to your local Extension Office for customized recommendations.
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