Bale grazing builds soil health while easing the work of feeding cattle in the winter. Dennis Hoyle (Roscoe, SD), Dallas Anderson (Eureka, SD), and Doug Sieck (Selby, SD) shared their experiences. Sieck was skeptical to begin with. He started out small 10 years ago and now bale grazing is a regular part of his winter feeding program. He sets up a checkerboard with poly wire in the area to be grazed and puts out about five days’ worth of bales in each “square” (see photo). Dallas Anderson has bale-grazed crop land and hay ground. He sectioned off areas with a poly wire that held enough bales for about 5 days. Hoyle set bales in 10 rows of 14 each in a 15-acre corner of an old CRP field and sectioned the row to be grazed off with poly wire.
Questions to answer in setting up bale grazing include wind protection, access to water, and how to contain the cattle. While Sieck noted that aircraft cable is used in North Dakota, respecting an electric wire on snow-covered ground can be an issue. Hoyle found this to be true. After the cows got out a couple of times, he let them graze the entire unit at will and was pleased with the result. Where to place the bales depends on what the goals are. Crop, hay ground, and pasture can all be candidates. One goal may be to provide feed during or just after a snowstorm. Having bales preset near windbreak and water means less work and worry when bad weather hits. Anderson said that while the litter from the very center of the bales placed on cropland can be thick enough to keep the seed from going in the next spring, the production a little farther out makes up for the skips. A year or two later, once the litter breaks down, that skipped area can be very productive. “It definitely helps the land. You can bring it out in a bag at a high price or you can let the cows help,” said Anderson.
Sieck has bale-grazed an old calving pasture and different hayfields. He thinks his best results have been on land with tame grasses like crested wheat, brome, and an alfalfa/wheatgrass mix. “Old hay fields have a lot of potential because so many nutrients have been exported,” he said. He also noted that the remaining circle is like a donut, a bit bare in the middle, but with extra production around the edge. He was surprised that he could see all the circles from his first bale grazing area on Google Earth. The benefits are many. Putting out a week or more of feed vs. feeding every day saves fuel and wear and tear on equipment. One labor and fuel-saving hint is to leave the bales where they dropped if grazing hay fields. All three men said the wasted hay was less than expected. What is left acts first as bedding, and then adds organic matter to the soil as it breaks down. Sieck observed that the snow and hay residue packed together in a bale “ring” (approximately 25 ft across) are the last areas to melt in the spring, allowing the nutrients to slowly enter the soil. Churned-up mud in the spring has not been a problem according to Sieck. In fact, alfalfa responds well to that kind of hoof impact. He noted that it is best to remove solar-degradable twine on hay ground before grazing as it gets stomped into the residue and degrades poorly. It gets tangled in baling equipment later.
Sieck framed this group of figures regarding the fertilization effect of bale grazing just to remind himself that buying hay is okay: Each ton of hay contains 40-50 pounds of nitrogen, 12-14 pounds of potash, and 40-50 pounds of potassium plus organic matter. The dollar equivalent of NPK in a ton of hay is about $40. The impact on soil health is noteworthy. At each bale site, there is animal impact, nutrient cycling, densely packed nutrients and organic matter, and enhanced infiltration. The resulting increase in production lasts for several years. Healthier soils and healthier plant populations with minimal labor and financial input are a plus in any grazing or cropping operation.