Written by: Shanna Reynolds, Oglethorpe County ANR Agent

Feed costs typically determine profitability on a cattle farm, so it’s no surprise farmers continue to be innovative with feeding strategies. In the southeast, livestock producers can take advantage of long growing seasons and generally abundant rainfall. But even here, meeting feed requirements during the winter represents a major fraction of a farm’s variable costs. Strategies such as stockpiling standing forage, over seeding winter annuals, or a newer strategy like “bale grazing” can prove beneficial to reducing costs.

A typical winter feeding strategy in Georgia includes a sacrifice area where hay is fed throughout the winter. As winter rains come and soil gets saturated, transporting round bales daily leads to rutting. Not to mention the time it takes tracking in and out of the field each day, opening gates, and placing hay rings. First adopted in Canada, bale grazing is a system that allows you to skip using a tractor for a couple of months and also helps build pasture fertility.

Bale grazing is a process of setting out large round bales before the winter feeding period begins. Bales are typically spaced in an arrangement looking much like a checkerboard throughout the pasture. Bale access is then rationed through the winter in a rotational grazing style. Temporary electrical fence is used to portion a share of the bales and the wire is re-set every few days to feed another section.

This strategy concentrates labor and machinery demands in the fall before the ground is saturated and cuts winter labor requirements down to only removing bale twine and repositioning temporary fences. In addition to the convenience of bale grazing, there are significant benefits to the land because of the uniform distribution of manure, urine, and unconsumed hay across a pasture. You may also see improved animal health resulting from constantly moving the feeding area and having less mud and manure for animals to stand in.

Bale Grazing was featured this past month in the Georgia Cattlemen’s magazine where they pointed out the fact that a 1,000-pound bale of bermudagrass hay contains around 23 pounds of nitrogen, 6 pounds of phosphate, and 25 pounds of potash. Instead of placing an abundance of nutrients in a relatively small area the rotational style of bale grazing distributes them throughout a pasture possibly eliminating the need for commercial fertilizers. Unrolling hay is a method more commonly used that gives good distribution of nutrients, but farmers still need to use a tractor every day or two and dig ruts into wet winter pastures.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits to pasture soils isn’t the fertilizer components, but rather the organic matter that is distributed on a field. Increasing soil organic matter will improve its long-term water holding capacity, which in turn increases its ability to store and supply other essential nutrients for future forage growth.

For fall calving herds, you can creep graze by adjusting the height of your electric fence. Allowing calves to access the bales first. This works particularly well with stock piled standing forage. Stock piled pasture is typically higher in both energy and protein compared to baled hay.

Bale grazing is not for everyone. Here are a few tips to make it successful if you choose to try:

-Cattle should be familiar with and respect temporary electric fencing.

-Select a well-drained location for bales to sit for long periods.

-Start from a water source and move away from it. Back fencing is not necessary if grass is in a dormant season.

-Limit feeding time to around 3 days per spot when possible.

-Use high quality hay to reduce waste left behind. The more palatable the product, the less waste you will have. Hay rings can be used with bale rotations to help reduce waste, but of course add to labor requirements.

There have been several field days in recent years showcasing bale grazing on farms in Georgia. Keep an eye out for future opportunities to see these systems in action and consider if it would improve your operation.

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