Assessing the Value of Hay Litter During Winter Bale Grazing

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2016: $12,139.00
Projected End Date: 01/30/2018
Grant Recipient: Lighthouse Farm
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
John Mesko
Lighthouse Farm

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Agronomic: potatoes, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, grazing management, manure management, pasture fertility, pasture renovation, grazing - rotational, winter forage
  • Production Systems: holistic management, organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: organic matter
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life

    Proposal summary:


    Recent emphasis at SARE, NRCS and other sustainable agriculture outlets regarding soil health has raised interest in pasture management and grazing. Frequently, at grazing conferences and workshops, winter bale grazing is touted as a great way to add nutrients to the soil through spent hay litter left behind after the cattle are done grazing. I’ve heard many farmer-presenters make comments to the effect, “With what bale grazing can do for your soils, you can afford hay at almost any price.” In the north country, making hay is an essential component of producing cattle on grass, often limiting the amount of grazing land available on a particular operation in a particular year, as some land needs to be reserved for hay production.

    At the aforementioned events, I often ask if anyone has any data which can reinforce the claims of the value of spent hay litter after bale grazing. None has been produced.

    The cost of winter feed is generally considered the largest expense for most grazers, and the need to make that feed on the farm often limits the size of the grazing herd. If hay could be affordably outsourced, grass fed herds could grow larger if most or all of a farm’s land could be grazed. In an attempt to know the true cost and benefit of purchased hay in a bale grazing scenario, we must somehow measure the benefit of that hay litter on the pasture in subsequent years.

    The problem this proposal addresses is this: After taking all costs and benefits into consideration, what is the value of spent hay litter from purchased hay? How much can a farmer afford to pay for hay to be brought on to their farm to be used in winter bale grazing?


    How much can a farmer afford to pay for hay? We will assess the value of spent hay litter remaining on site after winter bale grazing. To do so, we will determine the change in productivity on the site after bale grazing. We will record the amount of purchased hay applied to the pasture for winter grazing in 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18. We will then record the amount of hay harvested off the site in the following summer, using 2015 numbers as the baseline. In order to have 3 years worth of data, we are self-funding the project starting December 1, 2015, until this SARE Grant (if awarded) starts. We are assuming July 1, 2016 as the start of SARE-funded activity. No grant funds will be expended on grant expenses prior to the award.

    The site for this testing and demonstration is a 14 acre pasture at Lighthouse Farm. One crop of hay was taken off this pasture in the summer of 2015, the recovery growth was grazed off in November, 2015.

    Everything being added to the site will be recorded, and everything being harvested from the site will be recorded, so we can determine the changes in productivity following bale grazing. We will monitor the changes in soil test and organic matter as well. For grazing, we will be applying purchased hay to the site rather than the hay produced on site, because the goal is to determine how much a farmer can afford to pay for hay brought in off the farm. We will also be collecting soil test and forage test data, to monitor any changes there.

    One half of the site will not have bale grazing and will serve as an untreated check. We will record hay production and quality data on the untreated check.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Evaluate changes in soil organic matter after winter feeding of cattle by bale grazing.
    2. Help farmers to determine the full value of purchased hay, helping them make good purchase decisions in the hay market and increase the productivity of their own farmland.
    3. Share results through a blog, e-newsletter, website, field day and conference presentation.
    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.