April 5, 2016 | By: Katie Pratt
Columbia, Ky.

An Adair County farmer is reporting promising results after his first winter using bale grazing to feed his cattle.

Bale grazing is a new concept for most Kentucky farmers. In bale grazing, the farmer sets out hay rolls in fields before winter feeding begins and restricts the cattle’s access to them using polywire fencing. Once the winter feeding begins, the farmer removes sections of the fencing to make two to three bales available to the cattle at a time. Once they eat that, the farmer opens more sections. Besides feeding cattle, bale grazing can help farmers get some free fertilizer in the form of better manure distribution.

It has been heavily promoted as a winter feeding option in western states for years, but Kentucky’s climate, geography and soil types are vastly different from those states.

Fred Thomas sought advice and assistance from Nick Roy, Adair County agent for agricultural and natural resources with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, and Jeff Lehmkuhler, UK extension beef specialist, before his project began.

“What we want to see in this field is that we have increased the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium levels in the regions that we fed the hay,” Lehmkuhler said. “Hopefully over time, because we have more organic matter in the soil, we’ll also see an increase in soil health, more microbial activity increasing the organic matter and giving us a buildup of soil overtime.”

Until this past winter, Thomas, like many Kentucky producers, sacrificed an area in one of his fields where he fed cattle during the winter.

“In the past, I’d been feeding down on the bottom, but it just wasn’t a good situation,” Thomas said. “Bale grazing worked perfectly for me, because I had some puny fields that were low in fertilizer and were needing some nutrients put back in them. So I was really taking care of two things: getting cattle off the bottom and getting more fertilizer and more organic matter in my fields.”

Roy and Lehmkuhler helped him with background information, soil testing and site selection. Thomas lined the bales on ridgetops that were away from surface water. Thomas put in an alleyway so the cattle could access water.

“As we looked at where we might implement this, one of the things we wanted to do was to minimize the environmental impact and minimize nutrient runoff into surface water,” Lehmkuhler said. “We tried to keep a buffer on the steep hillsides so the grass could capture any runoff nutrients and actually benefit from those.”

Thomas used bale grazing to feed around 36 head of cattle. Those cattle consumed about two-thirds of a roll per day. They consumed about 40 percent more hay during the winter of 2014-2015. He credits less hay needed this year to less waste from bale grazing.

“Last year, I used 125 rolls, and I’m not going to use near that this year,” he said. “The cows look like they are in pretty good condition. Actually, I think my calves are a little too chubby. It certainly didn’t hurt them.”

Additional benefits Thomas reported included lower energy and fuel costs due to not having to use a tractor after initially placing the bales. In fact, Thomas didn’t start a tractor at all to bring hay to his herd this year. He also had less rot in his hay.

While Thomas has found many benefits to bale grazing, it does have some potential downsides including the cost of purchasing additional polywire fencing, moving the fencing during the winter and then purchasing the seed and reseeding the field.

“We have gotten great distribution of nutrients from our hay, however we have caused a great bit of damage to our existing forage base. So there’re tradeoffs,” Roy said. “In this situation, our soils here were very low in phosphorus and potassium. We were able to greatly benefit from good nutrient distribution, and we were ok with having to reseed this area after the winter.”

Thomas said he will try bale grazing again next winter but will move the location and space bales further apart to minimize the impact the cattle have on the existing forages.

UK extension personnel will continue to monitor the project for improvements in nutrients and soil health.

Contact: 

Jeff Lehmkuhler, 859-257-2853; Nick Roy, 270-384-2317

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