Steve Kenyon, Busby, Alberta, has been grazing cows on round bales for the past 13 years. He tells of a young man who came from Colombia to work for a 1,200-cow operation that bale grazed near Barrhead, Alberta.

“When Pablo first arrived, he’d never experienced winter feeding. That ranch bought another 150 cows and put them in a separate area. It was already winter, and they wanted to get the new cows fence-trained before they turned them in with the other cows. The new cows were breaking through electric fence to get to the bales, so the ranch manager decided that until they got those cows trained, he would feed them.

“Pablo’s job was to bale graze 1,200 head and take the bale buster out to feed the small group. He said it took longer to feed 150 cows than the 1,200 cows bale grazing. He couldn’t understand why anyone would ever haul feed to cows. He’d never seen it done either way, and was completely objective – and it made a lot more sense to him to bale graze,” Kenyon says.

Kenyon says he spread out his winter’s supply of 750 round bales in a 25-acre paddock, and reports it took about two hours/week to feed 366 bred heifers. The key to bale grazing if you are buying hay is to have bales delivered right to the pasture, he says.

Kenyon cuts the twine off before they freeze to the bales – a task that took about 20 hours of labor for 750 bales. He doesn’t cut sisal twine because it biodegrades quickly.

To ration bales during winter, he leapfrogs two electric fences across the field. This gives a buffer zone so he can move the fence nearest the cattle, while the second fence contains them.

“You need a back-up fence, while you put it back up again. And if a cow gets through the first one, the second fence contains her. I like to strip graze along a narrow rectangular paddock,” he says.

Some ranchers turn cows into a whole paddock of bales at once, rather than move a hot wire. Kenyon prefers a four-day grazing period for optimal balance between labor, animal nutrition/gain and feed waste.

“Labor is minimal if you only move cattle every 3-4 weeks, but waste may be too much, depending on the price of hay. And, you may not get optimal gains on your animals. They may eat very well for awhile, but when you’re trying to get them to clean up, they won’t be gaining during the last few days,” he says.

“Bale grazing is a skill. You won’t do it perfectly the first time. You learn as you go. It has to fit your own operation, cowherd, calving season, etc.,” Kenyon says.

Sidebar: Twine vs. net-wrap

Producers have tested various types of twine and wraps to avoid removing frozen twine from round bales and found sisal twine can be left on.

“There’s an advantage to leaving twine on, rather than taking it off, because it helps hold the bale together as cows eat it,” says Lorne Klein, a Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture grazing and forage specialist.

Plastic twine should be removed. It lasts too long in the environment and presents problems in the field the next haying season. Plastic twine can also be a danger to cattle, getting caught in hooves and around their head or legs, or entangle ear tags. And, it’s hazardous if ingested.

Net wrap is another option but it costs more. There’s less leaf loss, however, and it’s faster when making hay. Leaving net wrap on the bale also acts as a “feeder,” slowing down cows’ ability to break the bale apart, thereby minimizing waste.

“Most people with big herds are using net wrap, and they leave it on the bale,” Klein says. “They may pick up the net wrap later in winter, but it’s easiest to clean up in the spring. Cows don’t seem to have any problem with it, plus it’s easy to pull out of the litter, compared to pulling tangled twine out of a grazed bale.”

Sidebar: Feasibility of bale grazing

Lorne Klein, a Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture grazing and forage specialist, says bale grazing has been around for decades, but the convergence of three factors has aided its feasibility today.

The first, he says, was portable windbreaks, which allowed cattle to be grazed in fields without shelter. Second was electric fence to control cows’ access to bales. Third was the use of snow as a water source, to utilize fields with no water.

Klein says that, 20 years ago, people using snow as a water source were thought of as negligent. “This practice was looked upon as inhumane.”

In fact, Klein recalls giving a presentation to a group of producers and mentioned winter grazing and snow as a water source. “Some people in the crowd were unable to accept this concept,” he recalls. “So I came back to the office and looked for information. The University of Alberta, back in the 1980s, showed that cattle do well on snow – if it’s reasonably good snow (soft and powdery, not crusted),” Klein explains.