Bale Grazing: On-farm evaluation in the upper South

Project Overview

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


  • Agronomic: hay
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: feed/forage

    Proposal abstract:

    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 from proposal:

    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. The secondary objective is to collect preliminary data on nutrient accumulation, forage response, and soil compaction, by comparing bale-grazed areas with controls.

    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.