An “old throwback” way of feeding cattle is gaining traction among producers who are looking to save a little time in their day-to-day chores — and a bit of money.
“Bale grazing is an approach to feeding cattle in winter that tries to look at reducing costs,” said Grant Lastiwka, a forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
“When we looked at it in the latter part of the 2000s, it was around 40 cents per cow per day.”
Most of those savings are in yardage costs, said Lastiwka, who has been bale grazing on his own operation since 1995.
“We’re not looking at starting a tractor every day. We’re looking at putting feed in places for the cows to travel to them.”
In most bale-grazing systems, producers place bales in the poorer areas of their pasture in the fall and then ration the feed using electric fencing. Many people simply push electric fence posts into the bales and then “leapfrog” the fencing to provide more access to feed, said Lastiwka.
“The cows are about three feet away from heaven. When they come up to the hot fence, they can only eat what they’ve got back on their own side.”
This reduces the hands-on time spent feeding every week.
“People are finding it an opportunity to feed cattle and move electric fencing once a week,” said Lastiwka. “They feed them on the weekends, largely by cutting twines and moving wires and getting cows set up. During the week, they maybe move the wires once or twice.”
That was the main appeal for Sean LaBrie, who began bale grazing in 2011.
“We were looking for an alternative to typical feeding practices. I have a city job, which doesn’t allow me to be around to fire up machinery and feed every day,” said LaBrie, who runs 130 cow-calf pairs with wife Holly on their farm near Didsbury.
The pair started bale grazing three years ago with four paddocks and equal amounts of straw, greenfeed, and hay in each — and saw the benefits right away.
“I was only starting a tractor about every 23 to 25 days. Every five to six days, we were just opening a gate into the next bale-grazing pasture.”
And the time savings have only continued on LaBrie’s farm in the years since then.
“As opposed to doing an hour or two a day, now I’m taking maybe two or three days to set up the entire system,” he said.
“This has given us time to put out feed when we have the time. Then it’s a matter of opening a gate or two. It’s pretty easy within our time constraints.”
Bale grazing has also allowed LaBrie to regain some of the pasture health lost by overgrazing,
“We were certainly looking for a better, cost-effective way to feed animals, but also a better way to improve some of the tame pasture that we had that had been severely overgrazed before we bought the place,” he said.
“The 80 acres that we turned into the bale-grazing program, we turned it into four paddocks, and we might have got three or four days out of each of the 20-acre paddocks. There was almost no grass in there at all.”
The rejuvenation effort is now gathering steam. Last year, LaBrie grazed 100 cow-calf pairs on the four paddocks for 12 days. This year, he got 20 days even though he had 130 pairs on the paddocks and left lots of leaf and grass litter to capture rain and snow and provide shade to regulate soil temperature.
In most bale-grazing systems, bales are placed where nutrients are needed most, and as the cattle feed, the waste from the animals and the feed rejuvenates the soil.
“We’re really putting our feed where it’s going to do the most benefit,” said Lastiwka. “And what isn’t eaten contributes to the productivity of the stand into the future in terms of the nutrients but also organic matter and micronutrients as well.”
Research out of the University of Saskatchewan has shown that the recapture of nitrogen in feeding systems like this was more than 30 per cent. Normal recovery from hauling manure to the pasture is between one and two per cent, said Lastiwka.
“All of a sudden you’re seeing a system where synergy comes into it,” he said. “We’re seeing those pastures double in production or go even above that, and a lot of it has to do with the high amount of fertility applied.”
LaBrie has seen a marked difference in his own pastures.
“We certainly have noticed that the grass and the alfalfa have come back. It’s considerably heavier,” he said. “Through feed testing, it’s also shown that there’s more total digestible nutrients and more protein in the available grass.”
And his cows haven’t suffered from the change in diet.
“Our cows have kept really good condition,” said LaBrie. “We have very little death loss in the spring from underconditioned cows, and we don’t have much for sickness when it comes to calves getting sick from moms that are not in condition.”
While bale grazing may not be for everyone — it does come with around 17 per cent feed wastage — more and more producers are considering it a well-rounded approach to overwintering cattle, said Lastiwka.
“People see the environment benefits of better-quality pastures and more productive pastures for years afterwards. They see the economic benefits of saving a bit of money. And they also see the personal benefits where they don’t have to be out there every day doing things.”