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Seasons and savings with bale grazing

Loretta Sorensen Published on 27 April 2011

Canadian beef producer Neil Dennis had just determined he could no longer farm his family’s 1800s homestead in a conventional manner a few days before a flyer in the mail caught his wife’s eye.

Dennis wasn’t certain the “quality of life” workshop the flyer promoted was of any real value, but because it was free and his interest was piqued, he decided to at least listen to what was presented.

“The guy talked about rotational grazing as part of a holistic management lifestyle,” Dennis says. “What we heard at that seminar made us start looking for ways to cut costs.

“That was in 1988. Since then we’ve made a lot of changes to how we operate our farm. In order to manage our cattle, I’ve gone to a lot of workshops over the years and implemented several intense grazing plans that have worked well for me. Bale grazing is just one of them.”

For many years Dennis, like many other beef producers, put up hay and fed his cattle every day through the winter.

As his knowledge and experience with rotational grazing grew, he developed a new approach to feeding cattle, one that also helps him build up his soil.

“I buy my hay from the neighbor,” Dennis says. “For the first few years that I grazed the bales, he brought them over and we unloaded them in the pasture, placing them about 20 feet apart.

After a couple of years, when he saw how much the hoof action and litter improved the soil, he told me he thought it made sense for me to bring the cows to the bales. So that’s how we do it now.”

Among the things Dennis has learned along his journey with rotational grazing is that implementing something new in a small way and observing the results is the best approach.

He used that process with his bales when he implemented the grazing plan in 2000. He set up enough bales to allow the cattle to graze them for two weeks that first winter.

“The way we organized it was to move the cattle every two or three days,” Dennis says. “We set the bales up about a half mile off the road.

The next winter we had a lot more cows in here and we set the bales up right next to the road so neighbors could see what we were doing.”

Since he implemented that first plan, Dennis has learned to make the work even easier by sectioning off enough bales to last the cows three or four days.

All the bales are put in place before winter weather sets in. Rows are just 10 bales wide to reduce the amount of walking required to get to them in harsh winter conditions.

Each paddock covers one acre. Perimeter fencing is comprised of reels of airplane cable that doesn’t stretch and sag under the heavy coatings of hoar frost that are common in Canada.

Interior poly fence is held in place with fiberglass rods buried in a bale. A second fence provides some insurance if the cattle do break through the first fence.

“It takes about 15 minutes to move the cattle,” Dennis says. “At first we used plastic strings and pulled them whenever we moved the cattle.

We pull all the strings in nice weather before the cattle go in. If a big wind does come, it doesn’t bother the bales. They don’t come apart.

We’ve also learned it’s better to move the cows every four or five days and give them access to several bales at a time.

That way the calves get a better chance to get to the bales, too. If there’s only a couple bales, calves get shoved aside a lot.”

Snow is trampled down by the cattle, even if it becomes fairly deep. Because the paddock area thaws before the ground outside the pasture warms up, runoff isn’t a problem. Nutrients and moisture soak in.

Some producers may be concerned about the amount of hay trampled into the ground during this process. Dennis says the payback in soil health is more than worth the small percentage of feed trampled underfoot.

“You’ll grow two to three times as much forage on that ground the year after the cows graze bales there,” Dennis says.

“Even if you have some dead spots in that area. We’ve done experiments on that. The litter on the ground causes the area to warm up faster in spring and stays warmer in fall.

We’re finding that where we graze bales, the ground is thawed at least a month longer than surrounding ground with no litter cover.”

Cows have a learning curve, too, when they’re introduced to bale grazing. Dennis says most catch on fairly quickly.

“Cows that have been babied may not like it,” he says. “But most get used to the system. I monitor water carefully. If there’s enough snow and it’s the right kind of snow, that’s sufficient for them.

There needs to be plenty of moisture in the snow, because they’re eating a lot of dry matter to stay warm. You have to watch it carefully, because they’ll go downhill quickly without the proper amount of water.

The first-year cows are just on snow; some might beller and complain about it, but they get the idea pretty quickly.”

In calculating his savings by grazing bales, Dennis has considered the time and labor involved in cleaning corrals. He estimates just by eliminating that chore he’s saving between $10 and $15 per cow.

“That’s without figuring the benefit of the micro-organisms that now thrive in the soil and the improved quality of life we enjoy,” he says.

“I find 40 different species of forage in my pasture now since I’m using the bale grazing. With that much healthy forage, weeds are choked out.

The different forages have a variety of levels of sugar content at different times of the year, which means cattle are consistently grazing and gaining weight.

“I recommend that you don’t harrow the ground where you graze bales,” he adds. “That will cause the soil to lose those nutrients.

It’s hard to believe how beneficial this is until you see it. The way the cattle build up the soil in this process is phenomenal.”  end_mark

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