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Bale Grazing: Transform your landscape during winter feeding

Bale grazing can improve your soil.

Maezy is modeling the difference in the bale grazed area. Notice the distinct line where the residue and litter remained and how much healthier the foreground is compared to the background.

Are you feeding in a sacrifice lot?

All too often on ranches all over the west, people winter their livestock on feed grounds that end up looking like ground zero after a bombing. The soil is packed hard and when the growing season finally comes, all you can grow is Mustard and thistle.

Does that sound familiar?

Well it doesn’t have to be the case,  you can manage your feed grounds with a grazing plan and utilize all of that animal impact during the winter to your benefit. First off, let me say that it is my intent to break the hay habit and to manage for ample feed left after the growing season ends so that I don’t have to purchase hay from the neighbors. Until then, I will use the hay that I feed to benefit my soil rather than take from it.  There are several approaches that can help with this but first you must go out and look at your pastures and see which areas are in need of added nutrients, cover, are battling invasive weeds or erosion.  Ask yourself: what am I trying to create and how can I use my livestock as a tool to help get me there?


Next, it is time to plan for how you want to address the issue and (like all things in Holistic Management) timing, or when is the best time to move your herd to that head-cut eroded gully or to that patch of Canada Thistle. Timing is always key in Holistic Management, if you impact your degraded site when the ground is moist and not frozen you can add to the compaction issue and further hurt the area that you are trying to improve.  Rather, you should wait until the ground is frozen and feed your hay when you can add cover, dung and urine so that when the ground thaws, it is protected from the elements and provides a suitable environment for seed germination.

Technique: The BIG Flake

There are many techniques to achieving your desired result and there is no one that is perfect for all situations.  I had a couple of different sites that I wanted to impact this winter and we used several techniques at different times to give us our desired result.  On one area of the ranch, I had quite a lot of rank Tall Wheatgrass. Now any of you that have Tall Wheatgrass on your property know that it can be good feed when it is vegetative, but once it lignifies, it is  like trying to get cattle to eat sawdust.  The problem with this is if you don’t get your stock to either eat or impact those rank plants, the whole plant will begin to suffer and you will see center die out happen.

In order to nip this in the bud, I decided to get my cattle to trample the standing dead stems to create litter. In order to get the livestock to mash it down the way that I needed, I had to create a herd effect (that behavior that animals exhibit when they are competing for food).  So I took small bales of grain and alfalfa hay and fed the livestock in the center of this patch of rank feed that I needed impacted.

I didn’t just put the truck in low range and flake out hay in a way that the cattle could all relax and enjoy their own flake, rather I kicked the hay  off in big chunks half of a bale at a time and fed them pretty closed together so that the cows would feel like they needed to hustle to eat and compete for every bite they got.  This changed the way that the cattle behaved and they did not care where they stepped or trampled and it gave me a fairly uniform impact over the area that I needed.  The next day I chose another site with similar needs and continued the method.  Keep in mind that I had a lot of different sites that I wanted impacted last winter so I needed to plan when to impact which site and how.  I chose to hit this site early is the feeding season as I was not as concerned with compaction on unfrozen ground with all of the roots and perennial wheat grass present.

Results of bale grazing

Bare ground exposed prior to bale grazing.

Bale grazing

The same site in April following bale grazing.

The Classic Un-roll

Once the ground really started to freeze, I moved my cattle to another site and a new approach was used. This site was a hill side that dropped into a meadow.  I had taken three grazing selections off of this meadow during the growing season.  The issue that this site has, is that it was high and dry and during summer when the cattle were in this paddock, they would loaf of the hill when they were relaxing and ruminating.  Over the years, this behavior had created a hillside that was super simplified in terms of succession. In fact the only thing that would grow was Tumble Mustard and various types of thistles.  So I bought a couple of loads of Rye round bales from a neighbor. The hay was cheap ($50/ton is super cheap in California) so it made sense to do a little bale grazing- the classic unroll method.  I took the round bales to the top of the hill and unrolled  a couple down the hill every day.  In this instance I was not utilizing herd effect the same way but rather I was looking to cover as much ground as possible with hay/litter/seed and manure.  I fed in this manner in early December when the ground was frozen but not completely so the hay that was trampled was also pushed into the soil a bit.  Following feeding in this area in this way, the result was a site that had pretty good coverage and was well seeded from the hay the cattle left on the ground.

To Bale Graze or Not to Bale Graze

Following my hillside treatment, I went to the long meadow on the ranch that has a little knoll right in front of the gate where we have the mineral supplements. As in the first area, the cattle loaf in the summer to get away from the moist meadow and mosquitoes.   This site was even in worse shape than the previous site, Tumble Mustard that was four feet high and loads of giant thistles that would grow four inches across at the base.  Here I did some bale grazing.  Now for any frugal cowman reading this, who hates to waste hay, you will have to bear with me because this worked like a charm and the “wasted hay” paid huge dividends.

I first learned about bale grazing from Gabe Brown a couple years ago.  He was speaking about how he only fires up a tractor one day a year to feed his cows and that he take round bales out and puts them on sites that he needs impacted and moves his cattle to them as needed at pretty high stock density to get a good impact on the hay and ground.

We had a relatively warm and wet winter so I wasn’t up for putting all of my hay out at once. Instead, I would take out my hay one bale at a time, cut the strings and walk away.  The cattle really would attack the hay. I had more cattle than space around the bale so they were constantly kicking each other out of the way to get a bite.  The result is a lot of hay being stomped into a big circle. I would estimate that about one third to one half of the bale would get trampled and “wasted” per day.

I know, I know, how can that be good management? Counter intuitive right?

But let me tell you this spring I had more feed come up on acres of ground that had not produced any for a number of years, so the hay wasn’t wasted after all. Instead, it was used as a soil builder and planter.  Keep in mind though, it is not only Rye that is coming up in these areas. A lot of native perennial seeds are also germinating under all of the that protection and there is close to zero mustard or thistles where I did this. That is nearly complete irradiation of problem “weeds.” Keep in mind that it will look messy and you will feel like you are wasting hay/ money but it is much more of an investment than you may realize.


Types of Hay

Depending on what you are trying to create, the type of feed and how it is put up matters.  Like all things in Holistic Management, careful planning is important when you start bale grazing.

Some questions that you need to ask yourself are:

  • What are you trying to create in this area?
  • What is the timeline that you are working with?

The answer to these questions will help you decide what type of hay to use when using this tool.  I choose to use Alfalfa small bales and Rye round bales. Part of what helped me make the decision was price and availability and part was finding the right tool for the job.  Alfalfa is important to keep up the total digestible nutrients and protein of the wintering cow’s diet. This is important to keep in mind so that you are maintaining a good plane of nutrition for your herd.  The grain hay happened to be Rye, but I could of just as easily choose Wheat or another winter-tolerant small grain.  The grain hay is important to me to because I like how tough the seed is and having all of it germinate in the first season to graze is optimal for my ranch’s financial bottom line.    Now with all of the grain that did germinate on the degraded sites,  I was able to graze them three times in the growing season as I was careful in my grazing plan to keep  those plants vegetative  and not let them head out until late summer.  This gave me much more tonnes of feed than I “wasted” during the winter and provided much needed biology to some parts of the ranch that were in serious need of improvement.



The Results

I was expecting to see good ground cover and to start the healing process of these degraded areas,  I was not ready for the total turn around that we observed.  I am absolutely stunned by how well this worked and only wished that I had been more aggressive with it last winter and done a better job of getting my bare ground covered during the winter feeding months.  We plan to intensify this next year and really increase the amount of impact we can have on these degraded sites.

site had bare ground and weeds before we took action

This site was predominantly tumble mustard and thistle before we bale grazed it.

Useing livestock to improve soil

The same site in April growing lush grass. A remarkable improvement in a matter of months.