Bale Grazing: On-farm evaluation in the upper South

Progress report for OS19-127

Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2019: $12,252.00
Projected End Date: 03/14/2022
Grant Recipient: University of Kentucky
Region: Southern
State: Kentucky
Principal Investigator:
Greg Halich
University of Kentucky
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Project Information


Drive through a major beef cattle producing area in the Upper South during the winter and you will see tractors hauling round bales. Sometimes they will be going from a barnlot directly to a feeding area. Sometimes they will be traveling on a public road to get to a more remote spot where cattle are located. Typically this hay will either be fed in a “drylot”, or on the edge of a pasture that is close to an easy access area. In either case, you will see similar results: 1. Most of the nutrients that was imported with the hay are either lost to leaching, to volatilization (for nitrogen), or super-concentrated in the soil in and around the feeding areas where it is doing little good for future forage growth; 2. In typical winters these areas become mud-puts by the end of the season. Cattle often get caked in mud, and become cold stressed easily. Calves born in late winter, in particular, can more easily develop health problems in these conditions. Severe erosion typically occurs in and around these areas where there is moderate slope.

Some beef cattle farmers have moved to feeding hay on a feeding pad or hay feeding structure. If managed correctly these can prevent much of the soil erosion and part of the loss of nutrients. However, 90 percent of the K and roughly 2/3 of the N that cattle excrete are in the urine, and this is extremely difficult to capture in typical beef cattle type feeding structures. Unless you have a significant amount of bedding material (carbon) to absorb and capture the urine, most of these nutrients will eventually seep into the soil, wash away, or volatize (with N). Most beef cattle farmers don’t own or have access to a manure spreader so often times the manure is scraped and set out in nearby piles. Even if this manure is spread, most the N and K will be gone, leaving a high P manure. Then there is the cost to build these structures. They are not cheap.

Some cattle farmers have moved to unrolling their hay on pasture. This solves the problem of not wasting nutrients (unrolling does a great job at distributing nutrients out on pasture). However, due to having a tractor out on pasture, unrolling hay can cause severe compaction to pastures when soils are wet. Moreover, in this and all these other hay feeding practices, there is a need to use a tractor to feed the hay, typically 2-4 times a week.

Drive through this same cattle producing area in late March after the first few nice days of early spring and you will see fertilizer buggy tracks every 30-40 feet traversing the pastures and hayfields on many of these same farms, where fertilizer was just spread onto depleted soils. The nutrient cycle is completely broken on many of these cattle farms. Is there a better way to feed winter hay?

Imagine not having to use a tractor to feed hay during the entire winter. How much fuel and labor would this save? Also imagine these same pastures that were getting regular doses of commercial fertilizer applications with heaviest forage growth you have ever seen and imagine doing this without any commercial fertilizer whatsoever. Is this just a cattleman’s dream? Ten years ago, it would most likely have been just that, a dream in the depths of a dreary winter. However, the last few years we have seen a few farms in Kentucky and the Upper South change their hay feeding system and experience exactly this: Feeding round bales without using a tractor and building up the fertility of their pastures without commercial fertilizer. How could this be possible? These cattle farmers are using a feeding technique called “bale grazing.”

Bale grazing is a winter-feeding technique where bales are set out on pasture before winter and fed in a planned, controlled manner, somewhat like rotational grazing. Temporary electric fence and posts are used to give cattle access to the bales that you want fed in the current move. The fence is moved to expose new bales, usually 25-100 feet at a time. Hay rings that protected the previous bales are rolled to the new bales and flipped over into place. The process is typically repeated every 1-7 days.

Properly planned, you will not need to use a tractor the entire winter and nutrients will be deposited where they are needed. Simple, cheap and effective. The major requirements for making the system work are 1. an open mind; 2. the capacity for advanced planning; 3. the ability to roll hay rings up to 100 feet; and 4. cattle trained to electric fence.

Bale grazing research in Canada has confirmed the efficacy of bale grazing and nutrient deposition. Forage production measured over 1.5 years after winter feeding was 226 percent higher with bale grazing compared to the control and 127 percent high compared to sites where an equivalent amount of manure was spread from a drylot. Forage protein levels were 80 percent higher than the control and 74 percent high than where manure was spread after the winter. Why were forage production and quality levels so much higher in the bale grazed areas compared to where equivalent manure from the dry lot was spread? The researchers couldn’t answer that definitively but speculated that since most of the N and K was in urine, very little of this ended up being transferred from the drylot to the pasture.

Winter conditions in the Upper South are typically much more muddy compared to the High Plains of Canada. Pugging, in particular is a concern here. This has to, and can be managed so that pugging will be minimal. It just takes good management. If we could alleviate the fear that many cattle farmers have of destroying their pastures through this type of hay feeding, we could promote more widespread adoption of bale grazing, and the associate benefits.

Project Objectives:

The main objective is to assess if bale grazing systems can be developed for the Upper South where cattle won't severely pug and damage pastures. Based on personal experience, farmers will have to be adaptable to weather conditions and be flexible on how they actually implement bale grazing. We need to alleviate fears that bale grazing will destroy pastures. The secondary objective is to collect preliminary data on nutrient accumulation, forage response, and soil compaction, by comparing bale-grazed areas with controls. It is hoped that this preliminary data will jump-start a more comprehensive long-term research project related to bale grazing in the future.


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Materials and methods:

There are four main components to the research we are conducting in conjunction with these on-farm trials: 1) Soil sampling, 2) Forage production sampling, 3) Soil compaction testing winter 2021, and 4) Labor/equipment comparison.

1) Soil sampling: Pre-bale grazing soil random sampling was taken on pastures where bale grazing occurred during the winter.  During the winter of 2019-20 standard soil testing was conducted.  Starting in the winter of 2020-21 additional testing was conducted for soil biological activity.  Post bale grazing soil testing is conducted at set distances from the outside edge of the “impact zone” (washer-shaped area where cattle stand behind the hay ring).  For the winter of 2019-20 (conducted in April 2020), we experimented with a variety of distances so that we would better know what to focus on the following year: 0, 3, 5, 8, and 10 yards.

Standard soil test measures are being tested for in addition to organic matter.  We hypothesize that K rates will be most effected in the bale grazing areas as most of the potassium (90%) is found in cattle urine and most of the phosphorus (98%) is found in cattle dung.  The K should be plant available the first year, while most of the P will likely not be plant available the first year as the dung will need to break down before releasing.  We hypothesize that K rates will be highest in the impact zone and decrease at further distances. 

For organic matter, we don't anticipate any major differences in 1-2 years of bale grazing, but the extra cost is low enough where it makes sense to test. Our hypothesis is that organic matter would have only small positive changes in the short-run in bale grazed areas. Long-run, higher forage productivity may increase organic matter through root carbon exudates into the soil that feed microbes.

2) Forage production sampling: Forage growth was measured at multiple times during the growing season to determine how much less forage growth would occur in the “impact zone” (washer-shaped area where cattle stand behind the hay ring).  Our hypothesis was growth would be reduced in the first year but greatly improve over time and be higher at some point (possibly year 3).  Measurements were taken in the impact zone, and then randomly in the rest of that pasture and compared. 

3) Soil compaction testing: Starting in 2020-21, soil compaction testing post-bale grazing is being measured (this will be completed by mid-April 2021), as we purchased a soil penetrometer that can measure compaction.  This will help determine if compaction is an issue in bale grazed areas.  Our contention is that compaction may be an issue in the “impact zone” (area directly behind the hay ring where cattle are standing while feeding), but that it would not be an issue on the rest of the pasture.  We also anticipate compaction being reduced over the course of the first grazing season and in subsequent years.

After bale grazing is complete, soil compaction sampling would occur in randomly selected bales: middle of bale (no hoof traffic here), impact zone, 3 yards from impact zone, and 10 yards from impact zone.

4) Labor/equipment comparison:  Starting in the winter of 2020-21, cooperators are keeping track of time while bale grazing: putting up and removing temporary fencing, moving hay rings, etc. This would include the time to initially put out hay on pasture in the late fall. One farm also fed part of the winter on a feeding pad and kept track of time with this feeding method.

Research results and discussion:

We have preliminary results for both the soil sampling and forage sampling for the 2019-20 winter.  Data is still being recorded for the winter of 2020-21 for all four data types. 

Soil sampling results were mixed for the first winter, but backed up our hypothesis that K levels would be highest in the impact zone and get lower with distance.  Since we experimented with various distances from the impact zone for the first year, it is difficult to standardize the data.  Below are the raw results for the two farms that were soil tested the first winter.






Impact Zone

Dave Burge Farm #3




10 yards from Impact Zone






Pre-Bale Graze





Impact Zone

Dave Burge Farm #4




5 yards from Impact Zone






Pre-Bale Graze





Impact Zone

Dorris Bruce #5




3 yards from Impact Zone





8 yards from Impact Zone






Pre-Bale Graze





Impact Zone

Dorris Bruce #6




3 yards from Impact Zone





8 yards from Impact Zone






Pre-Bale Graze




Forage sampling was done on two of the demonstration farms during the summer of 2020.  Forage sampling results for the first farm were 2.2 and 2.1 tons/acre for the impact zone and random sample respectively.  Forage sampling results for the second farm were .8 and 1.1 tons/acre for the impact zone and random sample respectively.  The surprising news is that on the forage testing we expected to see lower forage production in the “impact zone” (where cattle are standing directly behind the bale rings) in year 1, and increased production in subsequent years.  What we found (year 1 results only) was that one farm did in fact have slightly lower yields in the impact zone, but the other farm that we did forage testing on had slightly increased yields.  We fully expected to have substantially reduced yields in the first year in this zone on all farms.

Participation Summary
7 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

46 Consultations
5 On-farm demonstrations
4 Published press articles, newsletters
8 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

562 Farmers
27 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Presentation Anderson County Cattlemen’s Association January 2020: Presented on bale grazing and the two demo farms (at that time) in the county. 

Other Presentations:

Missouri Forage and Grassland Council November 2019

Cow-Calf Profitability Conferences: Bale Grazing 5 presentations Jan-March 2020

Virginia Forage and Grassland Council Webinar January 20, 2021

Cow-Calf Profitability Conference: Bale Grazing Webinar March 24, 2021

Bale Grazing Field Day March 18, 2021

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.