Kentucky is a dream state for cattle producers, with lush pastures that dot the landscape throughout most of the year. However, winter cattle feeding can be time-consuming, messy and inefficient. Thanks to a $2.3 million USDA Natural Resources Conservation Innovation Grant, Greg Halich, a University of Kentucky agricultural economics professor, is leading a six-state, multi-year bale-grazing study that is already making winter feeding easier for Kentucky cattle producers.
"The conventional ways to feed hay are sacrifice lots, feeding pads and feeding barns, and for the most part, those are simply not working well. Most farmers who use those methods are tired and worn out by the end of the winter," Halich said. "Bale grazing is a winter-feeding method where we set bales out directly on pasture and feed in a planned, controlled manner. It is basically rotational grazing of round bales."
He said that when farmers feed hay to livestock, most nutrients pass through the animal and can become fertilizer for future forage growth.
"How and where you feed the hay makes all the difference in this process," he said. "Nutrients need to be returned or recycled to farm areas that can effectively use them. If you lose nutrients before that occurs or spread those nutrients out on already-high fertility areas, you lose much of the potential nutrient benefits. So we have to think about feeding hay as an overall nutrient flow—exporting nutrients from hayfields and importing nutrients wherever you feed hay."
For the study, producers place bales out on pasture and then set up temporary electric fencing to limit cattle access to the bales. Each time the farmer moves the fence, the cattle move to a new area with new bales, and potentially stockpiled pasture, usually 30-90 feet from the previous fenced area.
"They will repeat this process every one to seven days," Halich said. "If farmers properly plan, they won't have to use a tractor for months at a time and nutrients will be deposited where they are needed. An added benefit is that cattle will avoid mud problems so typical of conventional hay feeding."
Reducing mud problems for cattle is significant. Mud causes cattle to expend more energy to walk through the pasture and it also cakes on the animal's hide and reduces its insulation capability. Halich said both of those problems create a scenario that raises the animal's energy requirements when it's critical to maintain body condition.
The study began this past winter. UK College of Agriculture, Food And Environment specialists worked with Mike Wilson in Anderson County and Josh and Melissa Ballard in Shelby County. Halich's team will collect soil and forage data for the next three years after each pasture has been bale-grazed.
Josh and Melissa Ballard were bale grazing before the project and believe it is an excellent tool to increase soil biology, pasture fertility and control mud.
"Those of us who have been using bale grazing know that it works, but we are excited to see the results of the study," Josh said. "Bale grazing is the only tool I have found that can turn a worn-out, broom sedge-filled pasture around without spending a dime. We spent three to four hours setting hay out in December and didn't need a tractor the rest of the winter. In the summer, when we turn cows out into a field that was bale grazed, the cattle immediately go to areas where they were fed hay. It does something to make the grass better; even the cows know."
Years ago, Wilson was reluctant to adopt bale grazing. But then he saw how it worked on another Kentucky farm and decided to try it, supporting Halich's 'seeing is believing' statement.
“I would add that it also adds organic matter to your fields, which helps retain moisture,” Wilson said.
The team will add participating farms in each of the next three winters. Halich said in year four of the project, they will switch the focus from data collection to demonstration farms that highlight the process and results of bale grazing to other farmers.
The NRCS hosted a national-level meeting for its staff in early 2023 where Halich presented on bale grazing. Based on that presentation, the NRCS realized the bale grazing requirements for their Environmental Quality Incentives Program funding required farmers to feed hay at far too concentrated rates for conditions in the Eastern United States, and they are now revising this protocol.
"Results from this project will continue to help NRCS officials revise their EQIP protocols and general wintering recommendations for beef cattle," Halich said. "But more than that, having a network of demonstration farms highlighting this practice will provide opportunities to Kentucky cattle farmers to see bale grazing practiced on real farms with real-world constraints."
He added that for most farmers, seeing is believing. An hour spent seeing bale grazing on a real farm in their community is worth a dozen presentations or articles.
"This is how most real change occurs: seeing a new practice on an actual farm and being able to see the results and being able to talk to the farmer," he said.
Halich's team in Kentucky includes UK Agricultural Economics Extension Associate Samantha Kindred, UK Department of Animal and Food Sciences Beef Specialist Jeff Lehmkuhler and UK Department of Plant and Soil Sciences Extension Professor Ray Smith, Forage Technician Gabriel Roberts and retired Anderson County Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent Tommy Yankey.
"Bale grazing is not for everyone," Halich added. "It takes good management, reasonable stocking rates, cattle that respect electric fencing, and possibly most importantly, being willing to try something new. The benefits, however, can be great—lush, high-fertility pastures, zero commercial fertilizer expenses, reduced machinery and labor costs, and reduced health problems during winter feeding."