Planned Bale Management Brings More Than Profits

Let the Cows Feed Themselves

(Joe Dickie)

Howling winter winds, driving snow and getting a frozen tractor started to feed cattle takes a daily toll on ranch families. To alleviate some of the stress, more Dakota ranchers today are turning the bales of summer into winter pasture grazing, saving both time and money. In addition, they're improving rangeland soil health and hay production for the future.

"We began bale grazing in 2014, leaving bales in the hayfield and stringing hot wire across the pasture so cattle could graze a week's worth of bales at a time. It has worked out really well for us," says Drew Anderson, a rancher near Lemmon, South Dakota. He saves money by keeping animals and nutrients in the hayfield instead of hauling fertility and carbon.

The Christmas blizzard of 2016 was an eye-opener to the fuel-saving benefits from winter bale grazing.

"When we ran out of bales to graze, I realized we burned about 35 gallons of diesel a day to haul bales and feed the cows. Compare that to bale grazing, where I'm burning $1 worth of fuel in the snowmobile every day to make sure they have water," Anderson says.

When he ran the numbers comparing costs not including labor, he spent roughly 14 cents per head per day to move bales from the bale yard and roll out hay for his 200 cows (costs were higher if he had to move snow). Bale grazing, on the other hand, cost about 3 cents per head per day if he bought materials annually. Prorating fencing materials over five years (they usually last longer) dropped that cost to just 1 cent per head per day. Anderson's 193 head of cattle grazed a total 400 bales on three different fields, and this was the only hay the herd received before moving to stockpiled grass.


Jessalyn Bachler, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension range field specialist, in Lemmon, echoes the time savings value she sees when working with ranchers, something vital to those with full-time jobs away from the ranch.

"To save several hours daily of feeding in the dark is huge during short winter days," she says. "By setting bales and fencing pastures in the fall, you can simply move a crossfence once a week. It takes a lot less time to run out and check cattle and water once a day compared to hauling feed daily."

Experienced winter bale-grazing ranchers use various methods to prepare pastures and hayfields before winter. Some leave bales in the original hayfield then add more bales to match cattle numbers according to water and future electric wire placement. Other ranchers haul bales to predetermined feeding locations and arrange them in a grid or different pattern to match the frequency of moving cattle.

When setting posts, Anderson likes to place metal step-in posts before the ground freezes. "Then, in January or whenever we start bale grazing, all I have to do is string the hot wire," he says.

"If we don't get posts placed, a cordless drill and a masonry bit work well in frozen soil to place posts."

Bales tied with sisal twine is another time-saver. Anderson explains, "You don't have to cut it, and it biodegrades, so the following summer, when you are baling, you hardly see any pieces of twine left. That saves on labor by not having to cut net wrap or cut plastic twine, and pick it up later."


Another approach, from Grant County, North Dakota, rancher Harold Gaugler, is to use fiberglass posts and to net wrap bales to increase longevity.

"Since we tend to stand bales on end, the cows work the wrap to the ground as they graze from the top down, making it easy for us to pick it up since it stays at the base of the bales," he says. "When we stockpile bales for three years before we go into a bale-grazing site, the wrap holds together better than twine."

He points out no two years are the same, with weather and markets driving his bale-grazing decisions. One winter, for example, Gaugler had 1,200 bales on 70 acres, feeding 225 cows with calves. After the calves sold, the cows plus 10 bulls continued to feed until April. The next year, he had 1,000 bales on 120 acres with about 270 cows bale grazing.

For Bart Carmichael, a rancher near Faith, South Dakota, the goal is to keep his cattle on pasture 12 months a year.

"We use bale grazing as a Plan B when grazing becomes difficult in deep snow," he says. He had 300 cows grazing bales for just two weeks in February, when temperatures went 30 below zero for 10 days. Once it warmed up, the cows moved back onto pasture.

"We move cattle to the bales, then all we have to do is move electric fence instead of starting a tractor every day," he says. "We try to place bales on thinner soils and hilltops to add nutrients to improve the soil."


One benefit all bale-grazing ranchers agree they see from the practice is improved soil fertility. This comes from a combination of the manure, urine and decaying bale residue.

"We don't view hay residue as wasted. It is fertilizer," Gaugler says. "When we started bale grazing, our hayfield had degraded soil conditions. We put the bales on hilltops with open soil with no organic matter on the ground. Our purpose was to bring that field back into production, and we have succeeded."

SDSU's Bachler advises that low-producing areas such as clay hardpans, eroded sites or spots with thin topsoil are all prime candidates for bale grazing, with a goal of building soil health and increasing forage production. When adding bales from another location, especially if the goal is to build organic matter on native range, select hay that matches the location to avoid invasive additions. Think of waste as seed or nutrients for that location.


There's a definite learning curve regarding the use of bales for feeding and what to do about the residues that can accumulate.

Rancher Anderson says the key is good management.

"Management is critical, because if you move them too soon, and you leave a 6-inch mat of residue, that will take a long time to break down," he explains. "There will be times when they clean it up really good, with barely enough residue to fit in a trash bag. We've learned that the nastier the weather, the better they seem to clean up hay residue."

Concerns about leftover bales in hayfields after the ground thaws is something rancher Carmichael says he hears when the subject of bale grazing comes up.

His answer is to not cut hay around those leftover bales. Rather, he prefers to let grass grow around the bales, and if they're needed later, he has essentially banked those bales to be used then.

The most significant piece of advice from ranchers who bale graze is to be willing to start the program on a small scale.

"While we now rotate cows among bales in 200 acres of hayfields during February and March, my best advice is still to start small," Anderson says. "For example, you could leave two weeks' worth of hay bales in a hayfield or haul out two weeks' worth of hay into a hayfield and just try it. But, once we started, we haven't missed a winter without bale grazing."


A three-year bale-grazing research study by North Dakota State University found numerous benefits to the practice. The study, "Impacts of Bale Grazing on Herbage Production, Forage Quality and Soil Health in South-Central North Dakota," was released in 2018. Key findings included:

-- Grass production was greater on the bale-grazed treatment compared to the nonbale-grazed control area.

-- Bale grazing enhanced grass crude protein and phosphorus content.

-- Soil nitrate, phosphorus and potassium levels at a 0- to 6-inch depth increased on the bale-grazed treatment.

-- The distance between bales showed the greatest impact on production.

-- Summer herbage production was greater 15 feet from the bales during the year of winter grazing and greatest from the bale center to 10 feet the second year following winter grazing.

-- The open spacing pattern of bales 40 to 50 feet apart appeared to better distribute cattle and minimize hay residue.

-- There was no evidence of soil compaction by cattle around the bales because of freeze-thaw cycles common in the Upper Midwest.

-- Bale litter left behind the first year can impede grass growth if too thick, yet it can increase forage production by retaining moisture during dry periods.