By Doug Schmitz
LEXINGTON, Ky. – A University of Kentucky agricultural economics professor is leading a six-state, multi-year bale grazing study – supported by a $2.3 million USDA Natural Resources Conservation Innovation Grant – that is already making winter feeding easier for the state’s 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,” said Greg Halich, UK associate extension professor of agricultural economics. “Most farmers who use those methods are tired and worn out by the end of the winter.
“Bale grazing is a winter-feeding method where we set bales out directly on pasture and feed in a planned, controlled manner,” he added. “It is basically rotational grazing of round bales.”
Michelle Sweeten, Michigan State University Luce County extension forage and livestock educator in Newberry, Mich., said bale grazing is the distribution and feeding of bales throughout a field in the winter, or low-forage growth months.
“There are a lot of ways to accomplish this: grid patterns, unrolling bales, or ‘hay bombing’ (placing bales closer together to create a layer of compost over the field),” she said. “How bales are placed depends on field goals.”
Halich said he started bale grazing on his own farm about 14 years ago after seeing the practice in the far north.
“It needed to be adapted to Kentucky conditions as we rarely have frozen ground in the winter,” he said. “I experimented for a few years until I had a system I was happy with. I then started working with other cattle farmers to help them implement it.”
He said the six-state project, which, besides Kentucky, includes North Carolina, Missouri, West Virginia, Virginia, and New York, started last July, and will have five total winters to bale graze and collect data.
“These states largely were chosen based on (the) personal relationship I had in these states,” he said. “I wanted to have a good representation of the Upper South and the Fescue Belt. New York was included as that is where I’m originally from, and my family still has a farm there.”
According to North Carolina State University, the U.S. Fescue Belt is where the fescue plant is mainly located, across the Mid-Atlantic, Upper-South and Lower Midwest. Important to the beef industry, the fescue plant is dominant from the Piedmont Region of the eastern U.S., all the way to eastern Kansas, and Oklahoma.
In the east, the U.S. Fescue Belt runs from mid-Georgia north to Pennsylvania, and in the west, it runs from Oklahoma to Kansas. It is a region that is about 1,000 miles long and about 400 miles deep, and is home to about one-fourth of the nation’s beef cows.
Halich said bale grazing started – and is most popular – in the Great Plains area of northern U.S., and southern Canada.
“Their ground is frozen solid for five to six months each winter,” he said. “Bale grazing techniques that work well for them can create a lot of damage in our environment with wet winter soils. One of the focuses of this project is to show farmers how to make it work in the Fescue Belt.”
Nick Roy, University of Kentucky Adair County extension agent for agriculture and natural resources in Columbia, Ky., said he first started working with local farmers regarding bale grazing in 2015.
“It’s been in recent years that interest (in bale grazing) has grown, and the practice has been a growing questions-and-discussion among farmers,” he said.
With bale grazing, he added, while consuming winter feed across the entire field, cattle distribute their nutrients across the field more evenly, which contributes to good soil health.
Halich said 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,” he added. “So, we have to think about feeding hay as an overall nutrient flow – exporting nutrients from hay fields 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 these problems create a scenario that raises the animal’s energy requirements when it’s critical to maintain body condition.
The 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.
The Ballards, of Shelbyville, Ky., were bale grazing before the project started, and said they 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,” he added. “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.”
However, years ago, Wilson was reluctant to adopt bale grazing, but then he said he saw how it worked on another Kentucky farm and decided to try it.
“I would add that it also adds organic matter to your fields, which helps retain moisture,” he said.
During the study, Halich’s team will add participating farms in each of the next three winters. 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.
Earlier this year, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) hosted a national-level meeting for its staff where Halich presented on bale grazing.
Based on that presentation, the NRCS said it realized the bale grazing requirements for their Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding required farmers to feed hay at far too concentrated rates for conditions in the eastern U.S., and they are now revising this protocol.
Halich said 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.
“Results from this project will continue to help (NRCS) officials revise their (EQIP) protocols and general wintering recommendations for beef cattle,” he 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.