Multi-Species Bale Grazing to Build Soil Health

Progress report for FNC20-1218

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $18,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Gaugler Farm and Ranch
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Erin Gaugler
Gaugler Farm and Ranch
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Project Information

Description of operation:

For over ten years, Drew worked in the oil industry where he became a proficient mechanical engineer. By working in an outside industry, he found and created opportunities to become involved with ranching on a full-time basis. He now manages a cow-calf and small sheep operation along with 970, 110, 240 and 160 acres of native, improved pasture, winter forage/hayland and CRP, respectively. Unfortunately, much of his land was abused prior to his management. Farming practices and severe over grazing left the soil to erode by wind and water. He has worked with NRCS, USFWS, ND State Water Commission and others to transition from a 3-cell pasture rotation relying on dugouts for water to a 20-cell rotation with miles of pipeline, multiples wells (solar and conventional), dams for wildlife, cover crops for bees and soil health, and miles of trees. He continues to work closely with these groups to address resource concerns and make long-term improvements in an effort to revitalize the land and improve wildlife habitat.

I have spent the last few years working off the farm to advance my knowledge of production agriculture and am in the process of transitioning back to the farm and ranch. Every position of employment has aided to my overall understanding of natural resource management. I have also earned a M.S. and am working towards a Ph. D in Range Sciences which helps me to not only design experiments, but also interpret and integrate research from the areas of cropping systems, farm economic management, animal systems, and natural resource management. Currently, I own a small herd of cattle and sheep and manage 340 acres of cropland. I am working to build soil health by managing the land as a pollinator cover crop that will be converted to a perennial system.

Summary:

This project is designed to address the resource concerns of land that was historically farmed with no inputs and depleted to a point of no longer being productive.  To rejuvenate the land and demonstrate how sustainable agriculture can be adapted to fit an operation, project coordinators will use multiple species of livestock and bale grazing.  This management strategy allows us to demonstrate a practice that is ecologically sound, profitable, and socially responsible.  Research from multiple universities has shown that bale grazing can increase nutrient capture, cycling, carbon sequestration, and more.  It has been shown that it can reduce the direct costs of labor, machinery, maintenance, fuel and fertilizer costs.  Additionally, multi-species grazing has the potential to improve forage utilization.  What research hasn’t been able to show is the real world application that combines all areas of focus and is available for producers to see the benefits and challenges of adopting a sustainable practice like bale grazing with multiple species.  As project coordinators, we feel a social responsibility to provide others with the opportunity to ask questions and consider options for their own operation.  It is through projects like this that sustainable agriculture will become a term that is better understood and more readily adopted.

Project Objectives:
  • Improve soil health and fertility
  • Increase nutrient cycling and reduce nutrient runoff
  • Improve herbage production and forage quality
  • Improve residue management
  • Improve herd and flock health by extending grazing season
  • Observe potential benefits of multi-species in a bale grazing scenario
  • Reduce feed and labor costs
  • Share findings through self-guided tours, field days, extension publications and testimonials to improve understanding of sustainable agriculture

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Kevin Sedivec (Educator)

Research

Materials and methods:
Project Area
DATE PROJECT ACTIVITY WHO PARTICIPATES
April 2020 Planning meeting Project Coordinators (PCs): Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler; Agronomist: Devin Gaugler; Extension Educators: Hannah Nordby, Kevin Sedivec; Burleigh County Soil Conservation District: Darrell Oswald
June-July 2020 Harvest hay on-site and at other fields PCs: Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler
Summer 2020 Electric high tensile fence modification & installation PCs: Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler
Fall 2020 Purchase, process, and train sheep to respect electric high tensile fences PCs: Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler
September-October 2020 Additional hay hauled to grazing area. Set-up portable windbreak panels. Soil test. PCs: Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler; Hay Hauler: Lane Shone
November-December 2020 Distribute bales and set-up fences for grazing rotations.  Bale graze through rotations with use of poly-wire to manage proper utilization of feed and forages.  Evaluate body condition of livestock with each rotation.  PCs: Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler
April 2021 Planning meeting PCs: Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler; Agronomist: Devin Gaugler; Extension Educators: Hannah Nordby, Kevin Sedivec; Burleigh County Soil Conservation District: Darrell Oswald
June 2021 Soil test PCs: Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler; North Dakota State University Soils Testing Laboratory
June-July 2021 Harvest hay on-site and at other fields PCs: Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler
Summer 2021 Electric high tensile fence installation PCs: Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler
September-October 2021 Additional hay hauled to grazing area.  Portable windbreak panels set-up; Attend a shepherd’s clinic or school PCs: Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler; Hay Hauler: Lane Shone
November-December 2021 Distribute bales and set-up fences for grazing rotations.  Bale graze through rotations with use of poly-wire to manage proper utilization of feed and forages.  Evaluate body condition of livestock with each rotation.  PCs: Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler
April 2022 Planning meeting; Soil testing PCs: Drew Gaugler, Erin Gaugler; Agronomist: Devin Gaugler; Extension Educators: Hannah Nordby, Kevin Sedivec; Burleigh County Soil Conservation District: Darrell Oswald

Multi-species bale grazing was planned to occur across 155 acres of land that had been historically mismanaged by a previous landowner to a point of soil depletion. The project was designed to address resource concerns and demonstrate how sustainable agriculture can be adapted to fit any operation. A planning committee met during the spring of 2020 to discuss project objectives, activities/timeline, and outreach efforts. 

During the summer of 2020, Drew and I began to modify the existing fences which were built for cattle management. Perimeter fences were modified by adding an electric high tensile wire to what was already a 2-wire electric fence. Due to the amount of infrastructure changes that will be required to successfully incorporate sheep, bale grazing only occurred in a portion of the project area during Year 1. As more fence is modified, bale grazing will be expanded to additional project acres. Drew and I chose to purchase half of the budgeted sheep during 2020. If incorporation and training goes well, additional sheep will be purchased in 2021. 

25 Kathadin ewe lambs were purchased during the late summer of 2020. They were quarantined to the corral for a week or so and then turned into a training pasture where they were introduced to electric fence. Our interest in hair sheep was because we wanted to minimize the labor involved with managing the animals and we also thought they might respond to electric fence better. 

Katahdin ewe lambs.
Katahdin ram.
Katahdin ewe lambs in training pen using collapsible hay feeder.

During the summer of 2020, hay was harvested on-site and at other fields. The amount of additional hay hauled to site is reflective of the number of animal units that we intend to feed through the winter months. During 2020, the sheep bale grazed alongside 80 bred heifers and 50 bred cows. 

A benefit of incorporating sheep is that manure distribution is more evenly spread across the field and soil compaction is limited.  Additionally, cattle and sheep do not share parasites which in turn breaks the lifecycle. As opposed to cattle, sheep are less selective in browsing near manure deposits which results in improved feeding efficiency.  Soil health will be monitored by collecting samples before, during and after project completion to monitor nutrients, biological activity, and residue.  Photos will also be taken throughout the grazing period and into the following spring for observation and outreach purposes.  Results will be evaluated and changes to bale grazing strategies to meet soil health goals can be considered. 

Even distribution of sheep manure.
Collecting soil samples.
Compositing soil samples in preparation for the Haney test.

Bales were distributed and temporary fence was installed at the areas designated for bale grazing during the late fall of 2020. Sheep and cattle rotationally bale grazed across 20 acres of land during the winter. After rotations had been grazed, bales from nearby stacks were distributed across the field again and again. Drew and I were hesitant about how the sheep would respond to minimal fence infrastructure and training, so we kept them relatively close to the yard where they could be monitored. Additionally, we wanted to create a high amount of impact in these 20 acres as this is where the soil is most unproductive and fragile. By bale grazing through an area over and over throughout the winter, we were able to see areas where bale placement was necessary. 

Sheep and cattle lounging together.
Multi-species bale grazing.

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Consultations
6 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Online trainings
3 Published press articles, newsletters
6 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

1000 Farmers
500 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

While bale grazing and the incorporation of multiple species has shown benefits, neither management practice has been widely adopted.  This project provides a demonstration of multi-species bale grazing to producers.  Outreach efforts during the first year of the project included the following: mail-box tours, farmer-to-farmer discussions, podcasts, webinars, newsletter articles, features in various newspapers and more. We plan to continue this effort during 2021.

NC-SARE display at Ag Day where Drew and I talked with producers about our experience with the Farmer-Rancher grant program.
Drew visiting and touring through our operation with another producer.
Drew and Erin featured in the Soil Sense podcast, talking about their bale grazing project and experience with NC-SARE.
Erin participates in a webinar series, sharing her experience about bale grazing to build soil health.

 

The Gaugler family capturing footage of bale grazing with a representative of SD NRCS and SD Grazing Coalition to demonstrate a successful winter-feeding grazing strategy.
Erin discusses strategies for bale grazing.
Article about the bale grazing project, funded through NC-SARE, featured in the Farm and Ranch Guide.
Siblings speak during the farmers forum at the 2021 NPSAS conference.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.