By: Mike Boersma, University of Minnesota Extension Educator & 4-H Program Director, Pipestone & Murray Counties
For beef cow/calf producers, minimizing the use of harvested feeds is a great way to reduce input costs. Doing so will translate to reduced costs of harvesting and transporting forages as well as reduced manure hauling and labor. However, in order to reduce the amount of harvested forages being fed, producers need to find ways to extend the grazing season. This can be a challenge in the Upper Midwest where the end of the grazing season is often dictated by the first significant snowfall.
What if a system existed that would provide a "happy medium"-where forages could be harvested and protected from the effects of snowfall, yet, could be fed in a way that didn't require starting a tractor daily throughout the winter and could also require very minimal manure hauling from the winter feeding area? The idea of bale grazing accomplishes exactly this.
In basic terms, bale grazing involves bales in a field or pasture at the beginning of the winter feeding season. Using a portable electric fence wire, cows are given access to a small number of bales at a time and the fence is moved periodically to allow access to new bales as needed. This system allows feeding to take place in the field or pasture, rather than in a yard or drylot situation. Feeding the cows in the field presents an opportunity for saving time and fuel generally used during daily feeding and manure hauling.
To maximize cost savings, bales can be left in the field right where they were originally harvested. If that isn't an option, however, bales can be hauled to a new field or winter pasture and placed in a grid pattern. In either case, an electric wire is used to grant access to new bales periodically.
The system works best when cows can only access a few days' worth of feed at a time. This will force the cows to eat more of each bale and reduce waste. For producers concerned with needing to move fence posts in frozen ground, try a cordless drill to create pilot holes for small fence posts.
The concept of bale grazing may not fit for all operations. But, if the system sounds feasible on your own farm as a means of reducing fuel and labor costs, I'd encourage you to give it a try.