Mike Hittinger ranches north of Edmonton, Alberta, and has bale grazed five winters. “We tried it first with just a month’s worth of feed. You learn by trial and error what works best for your situation, or if it works at all,” he says.

He admits the amount of hay wasted by bale grazing bothers some folks, “But we don’t bed the cattle – they bed in the waste – so it saves bedding. Plus it provides soil nutrients.”

The poorer the hay quality, the more the cows waste, he says. Good-quality hay, he adds, is “usually cleaned up pretty well. You need to weigh the cost of labor/fuel saved vs. the cost of waste, plus the added soil fertility.”

Hittinger says some of their soils are sandy or high in clay content and need the organic matter. “It’s a major reason we bale graze. We buy our hay, so we’re adding nutrients wherever we put the bales, and we bale grass over our worst pastures,” he says.

“One thing you need to consider is that every time you change a feeding system, you’ll see some cows that don’t do as well. With bale grazing, you sometimes must push cows to clean up the hay, and some cows may fall out of your program,” he explains.

Nebraska example

Nancy Peterson, her husband and son run 380 cows in western Nebraska, utilizing 2,300 acres of no-till cropland. “This ranch didn’t have much pasture so we’ve spent many years trying to match our resources with a good management system. We do a lot of swath grazing,” Peterson says.

About 1,000 acres of their farm is 26 miles from home so they move cattle there for winter grazing. “This works well, except that not all fields have stock water. Sometimes, we have to put up hay on a field that doesn’t have water, since we can’t swath graze it. So we put cattle on the nearest field with water, and move bales to that field for them to eat,” she explains.

“But the thing we like best about bale grazing, since we are no-till farmers, is that it’s a wonderful treatment for poor ground, increasing the organic matter and fertility. We see better yields following bale grazing,” she says.