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Management

Grazing bales Bale grazing reduces costs

Letting cows feed themselves during winter is one of the best ways to save on feed costs.  Bale grazing provides some economic and environmental advantages over some traditional feeding methods.  

Bale grazing is not new, but acceptability of this feeding method is relatively new.   Lorne Klein, grazing and forage specialist for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, says a few people were doing it 30 years ago but may have been thought of as poor managers – leaving bales out in the field for cows to eat.  

“Over the past decade, people began to realize the benefits of this method,” says Klein.

Grazing programs

Most of the early bale grazing programs involved hauling bales to a specific site, placing them in a grid pattern and allocating a certain number of bales every three to five days using electric wire.  Now some producers are letting cows eat bales on the hayfields where the bales are dropped – which saves more time, labor and fuel.

“When producers bale graze on fields at the proper rate, they enhance vegetation – not at a density where they kill the vegetation. Producers can recover 34 percent of the original nitrogen that was in the bale,” Klein explains. “If producers do it properly and manage the pasture properly afterward, they allow the vegetation to recover and grow.”  

The plants explode with new vigor.

Even if the producer has to haul bales and place them on a pasture that needs fertilizer, this is more effective and cheaper than hauling manure out to that pasture or using commercial fertilizer.  

The results and benefits also last longer than commercial fertilizer because producers have a combination of nutrients and litter from manure and the small amount of wasted hay.

Twines

Producers have tried various types of twine in bale grazing and ways to avoid the challenge of removing frozen twines from round bales.  

Leaving unwrapped bales in the hayfield is an option, but the strategy only works if they are eaten fairly soon after baling. Otherwise bales come apart and won’t shed moisture, wildlife get into them more easily, and there is more spoilage.  It’s also impossible to move them if the rancher needs to relocate the feed.

There are two kinds of twine – sisal and plastic.  

Sisal twine can be left on the bales. Some producers remove plastic twine before it freezes to the bales with freezing rain or melting snow.  

“If bales will be grazed in the field where they are made, sisal twine is a big advantage because producers don’t have to clean it up.  They can leave it on the bales and it’s biodegradable. There’s an advantage to leaving twine on because it helps hold the bale together as the cows eat it,” says Klein.

Plastic twines should always be removed because they can last too long in the environment and can be a mess in the field for next haying season. 

Twines are also dangerous to cattle because they may get caught in their hooves or around their head or legs. Ear tags may get caught and pulled off by twines.  

Plastic twines are hazardous for cattle if ingested, since they don’t break down as readily in the stomach as sisal and may create indigestion or plug the digestive tract.  

Net wrap

Net wrap is often used, even though it costs more.  There is less leaf loss, and it’s faster when making hay. The bale is completely wrapped with just 1.5 to two revolutions.  

Leaving net wrap on the bale also acts as a feeder, slowing down cattle’s ability to break the bale apart and waste it.

“Most people with big herds are using net wrap and leave it on the bales.  They may pick up the net wrap later in the winter, but it’s easiest to clean it up in the spring,” he comments. “It’s amazing how easy it is to pull net wrap out of the litter and manure, and cows don’t seem to have any problem with it.”

“The net wrap is fairly easy to pull out, compared to pulling twine out of a grazed bale.  When cattle eat on a bale wrapped with plastic twine, the twine is tangled in amongst the hay that’s left and it can be a nightmare trying to get the twine out,” says Klein.

In addition to regulating use of hay, Klein notes that producers can be more efficient in their feeding programs.

“The net wrap reduces waste, because it’s difficult for cows to start eating those bales. They tend to gang up on the bales and finish them off before they start on a new one,” he says.  

Some producers are now letting cows into the whole field, eating three to four weeks’ worth of net-wrapped bales, he explains.  This eliminates the task of moving electric fence every day or every few days.  

Electric fencing

There are many ways to use electric fencing to control the bale grazing.  

“The most important thing producers should know is if they are going to use electric fence in the winter is to train cows before winter.  If they’ve dealt with it during summer, cows will respect it in the winter and won’t get into the next batch of bales before the producer allows them to.  By winter the cows are not interested in challenging the fence,” Klein says.

“Some people use one strand, others use two strands, where one is hot, one is ground,” he notes. “It doesn’t really matter what the producer uses as long as the cows already respect a hot wire and don’t question it.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..