Bale grazing can save money

Winter feeding cattle on pasture, either through whole bale or processed bale grazing, can save cattle producers thousands of dollars per year in feeding costs and dramatically improve soil fertility, says the lead scientists with a Saskatchewan-based beef research centre.
The costs obviously will vary with each operation, but the savings are in the order of 40-50 cents per head per day, says Dr. Bart Lardner, senior research scientist with the Western Beef Development Centre in Humboldt, Sask.
For a 200 head cow/calf operation over a typical 120-day winter feeding period, for example, that amounts to a cost savings of about $12,000 per year.
Along with reducing costs, the practice of feeding on pasture puts roughly twice the nutrients back into the soil, compared to applying a similar amount of manure with a mechanical spreader.
The two-year research project compared pasture-based feeding systems to more conventional dry-lot ones. Of the three feeding systems evaluated in this project, the conventional dry-lot feeding system is the most straightforward.
Hay was hauled to cattle in a yard and put into feed bunks on a daily basis.
In the round-bale pasture system, whole round bales were spotted over a field in the fall, and with the use of portable electric fencing, cattle were given access to only those round bales the herd likely would consume over a two to three-day period.
Under the bale processing system, large round bales were shredded using a bale processor and spread in a windrow on pasture. Enough hay was shredded to support the herd for two-three days.
The project tracked the impact of about 96 head of cattle over a 120-day feeding period. While none of these systems may be as economical as swath grazing or saving standing forage for winter grazing, there were some obvious benefits and differences, says Lardner.
Aside from feed cost savings, a major benefit, he estimates, involves manure and nutrient management.
“With cattle in a dry-lot for winter feeding, you have all the manure in a dry pack or straw pack and it needs to be spread sometime the following year,” Lardner noted.
“Whereas with the round bale or bale processing systems, the manure is automatically deposited on the land.”
The project found that soil nitrogen was 2.5-three times higher in the soil on fields where cattle bale grazed or processed-bale grazed than on land where there were no winter feeding cattle.
“In comparing soil nutrient levels, we found there was 1.8-two times more nitrogen in the soil on the pasture grazing sites than on those fields where manure was applied mechanically,” said Lardner.
The difference was, in the dry-lot system, where manure sat in dry packs for the spring and summer, nitrogen was lost through volatilization, run-off, and leaching.
Researchers also observed on the pasture feeding sites, forage production the following year was 1.5-two times greater than on sites where manure was mechanically applied.
The bottom line is that feeding cattle on pasture can reduce winter feeding costs and, at the same time, improve the productivity of the soil where cattle are fed.
“From an environmental standpoint, pasture feeding can reduce the amount of hours on a tractor, which reduces the amount of fossil fuel being burned,” said Lardner.
“But perhaps more importantly, pasture feeding makes greater use of nutrients compared to the dry lot situation, where there’s a great risk of nitrogen being lost to the atmosphere or leached away into ground water.”
Dates to remember
•Oct. 21—Rainy River Federation of Agriculture annual meeting; and
•Oct. 28—Light calf sale, Stratton sales yard