Brian Ross and his wife Rosalie run 700 cows in southeastern Saskatchewan, near the Montana/North Dakota border. They began bale grazing after BSE crashed the Canadian cattle market.
“We thought we were efficient, but BSE forced to either get more efficient or get out,” he says. “With equipment and fuel costs growing, we found that bringing in hay, stacking it and then hauling it out during winter, plus starting the tractor every day, was costing about $10/bale,” Ross says.
They worked into bale grazing gradually. “In 2004, we hauled bales to the cows to feed them a week at a time. Now we don’t move the bales off the hayfield, except on rented land. We move the cows to the bales,” he says.
The Rosses turn groups of cows into a 30-day supply of bales, starting with fields closest to the water source. Then they’ll open a gate and move the cattle into the next field. Depending on the weather and wind, cattle may eat bales quicker or slower, he reports. “You have to keep monitoring the cows and hay, and know when it’s time to move them.”
Ross has operated this way for five winters now – some easy and some hard, he says.
“Snow isn’t a factor; cattle get through it to the next bale. And they tend to clean up the bales they’re working on before going to new ones, through the deep snow.”
Ross says the reduction in equipment and fuel use saves money, but the biggest advantage is the fertilizer benefit on his hayland.
“It takes a couple of years to kick into effect, because you have residue from the bale grazing, but right now those fields are producing more than they’ve ever produced in my lifetime,” Ross says.
“Along with bale grazing, we went to later calving – in May, and we don’t wean our calves until March. The calves winter with the cows on bales, and we creep feed them if it’s a tough winter – and the calves do well,” Ross says. The calves are sold as yearlings in August after a summer on grass.
In winter, his cows often use snow as a water source, but he also makes sure they have water – especially since he started leaving calves on the cows. “After the pairs are in fields ½ mile from the water, we see them licking snow,” he says. “They often prefer to lick snow, rather than walk to water, but the water is there if they want it.”