Assessing the Value of Hay Litter During Winter Bale Grazing

2016 Annual Report for FNC16-1048

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

Assessing the Value of Hay Litter During Winter Bale Grazing



In April, we dragged the bale-grazing site from the winter of 2015-16. The purpose was to break up manure clumps left over and create a more even distribution of hay litter.

Shortly into the discussion of bale grazing comes the question of whether or not a bale grazed site should be dragged in the spring after the cattle have been removed from the site. Typically, after bale grazing, the site is littered with spent hay anywhere from 2-6 inches thick, and in my experience, there are cow pies scattered about the landscape on top of the spent hay litter.

If left alone, this mass of organic matter will eventually break down. There is no requirement to scatter the litter about the pasture. However, for the purposes of our Minnesota Bale Grazing Study, we’ve decided to implement a spring dragging as part of the study protocol. We’ve got other sites on the farm which are not part of the study that will not be dragged, so we’ll have some ability to compare the 2 approaches.

My idea of scattering this litter is mainly focused on breaking up the large cow pies laying atop the spent hay. This is important to me for three reasons.

  1. Those cow pies are loaded with nutrients, and breaking them up might help those nutrients get into the ground a little faster.
  2. Breaking up the clods, or “smoothing” the site a bit, might make for a more efficient cutting with the haybine later this summer.
  3. Introducing a little air into the hay litter, which could also speed decomposition.

In talking about the question of dragging with other farmers, I realized that as secondary or tertiary tillage tools go, the drag is one of the least common tools out there. To some, a drag means “harrow drag,” a tool which actually has shovels attached like a field cultivator, and I would classify as secondary tillage (after plowing). Other farmers consider a drag to be tertiary tillage (after discing or field cultivating). My equipment and I fall into the latter category. The drag I’m using is a simple, 16 foot wide, non-wheeled drag, with teeth that can be set from about 75 degrees vertical (aggressive) all the way down to about 10 degrees vertical (almost flat on the ground).

For the purposes of the #mnbalegrazingstudy, I just wanted a light dragging with this simple tool to break up clods of manure and spent hay litter. I set the teeth on the lowest setting, just above flat, and pulled it with a John Deere 3020 in 6th gear at about 2/5 throttle. I estimated I was traveling 5-6 mph.

The manure clumps are scattered quite well. Again, the goal here is not an even distribution of all spent hay litter throughout the site. This would not be the tool for that, however, for breaking up the cow pies and slightly aerating the spent litter, I’m happy with the job it did.

The drag had not been used in several years, so there was a bit of maintenance and prep work to be done. Moving a sixteen foot wide implement with no wheels, and no hydraulics through field gates less than sixteen feet wide takes some time, and rusty chains need to be repaired. However, once at the site, one pass of dragging went quickly and I don’t feel my time or fuel was wasted.

Time will tell if this practice is something I would recommend or even would be needed, but immediately post dragging, by the looks of the site, I’m concluding it was worth it.


Baseline soil tests taken in the spring of 2016 report average soil fertility and soil health.  Forage tests from 2015 hay production and 2016 hay production are in the table below.



2015 Hay

2016 Hay

Crude Protein (Dry Matter)



Relative Feed Value



TDN (est, %)



Sampling Date

April 20, 2016

July 5, 2016

While forage quality improvements from 2015 to 2016 are impressive, it should be noted that the 2016 samples were taken days after the hay was made, and the 2015 samples were taken 9-10 months after baling.  More samples will be taken of the 2016 hay in early 2017 in order to compare the quality changes over winter.

The bale grazing site was grazed from September 5, 2016 through September 25, 2016 (20 days) by 14 yearling steers and heifers.  Calves averaged 725 lbs. at the time they were turned out, and after 20 days averaged 755 lbs.  The average daily rate of gain was 1.75#.  This number is lower than what we normally achieve on our farm.  We think part of this is due to the regrowth being too short to really allow for efficient grazing, and we think part of this is due to the fact that we split the yearlings off from the rest of the herd, and there was a day or two of stress on the yearlings from being separated.  They may have delayed getting right at grazing immediately.  Subsequent grazing in 2017 will help us determine the impact of these effects.

  1. We put bales out in 2015-16 too far apart.  In the spring the hay litter was not covering completely, which has resulted in spotty regrowth.  I expected the cattle to scatter the hay further than they did.  I am only going to allow 8-10 feet between bales this winter.
  2.  In some instances we used small square bales as well.  These bales need some kind of feeder to keep cattle from wasting it.  We’ve actually used round bale feeders for feeding square bales and it works well.
  3.  We’ve put out as much as 3 weeks of feed at a time, with little “wastage.”  I’m not sure what the far end of this is.  Could an entire winter’s worth of hay be fed at once?  That won’t be a part of this study, but it would make a change in how cattle overwintering could be handled.

Kent Solberg, Livestock and Grazing Consultant provided essential support in determining bale grazing protocol and testing regimes.


Feb. 28, 2017 - Progress Report Due

March 31, 2017 Bale Grazing ends.

April, 2017, drag field to break up clumps of hay

July 2017, Pasture hay is harvested, weighed and analyzed for forage quality. Soils are tested for nutrient content, organic matter

October, 2017 - Late season grazing of regrowth on pasture.  Animals are weighed onto and off of the pasture, forage sample quality taken, avg. daily gain calculated.

Dec. 1, 2017 - Bale Grazing Begins


We are planning a field day for fall 2017, as well as several articles to be posted to online media sources.