WING, N.D. – Hay bales at the Hein Ranch in central North Dakota aren’t piled up in the yard at home in December.
They are set out at a certain distance to each other in several different pastures for their cattle to do bale grazing this winter.
Some Northern Plains ranchers are letting beef cows graze on bales, cover crops and grass out in winter pastures as a way to keep cattle healthier, improve soil health and often lower feed costs, according to Josh Dukart, certified holistic management educator and rancher near Hazen, N.D.
“We’re not trying to bring the feed to the cows; we’re trying to bring the cows to the feed and let them have at it,” Dukart said. “Some planning and strategy has to go along with it and each operation is different. We’re not looking at any one item whether it is marketing or calving dates, we’re looking at the whole big picture and seeing what model can move the operation forward.”
Producer Ron Hein, who runs a cow/calf operation near Wing, with his wife, Julie, and in collaboration with his cousin, Sanford Williams, is in his second year of bale grazing. The relatives have found since their land is next to each other, that it works out better for their quality of life if Ron takes care of the cows and Sanford handles the calves after weaning.
“The cows are out on native grass right now (Dec. 1), then they have corn stalks and sunflower stubble,” Hein said. “I’ll go this way as long as the weather lets me and when I don’t feel comfortable anymore, I’ll start bale grazing.”
When bale grazing, Hein uses temporary fencing to move his cow herd around to the section of bales he wants them in. The wire and all the equipment he needs for the fencing is loaded on the back of a four-wheeler so he can just drive up on the snow and set up the fence.
“I have one fence, then I have another one ahead of them, so if they break through one fence, there is another ahead of them to stop them,” Hein said.
He plans to move his fence every three days and plans 10 bales per 280 cows, but other producers move the fence every seven days and calculate a different number of bales.
Hein sets out his best quality hay bales for bale grazing on one of his best grass pastures when the cows will need the most nutrition in the third trimester and during calving.
Dukart said Hein has a planned bale grazing system so the quality of bales and the areas he uses for grazing coincide with critical time periods such as calving.
“We moved our calving to May, June,” said Hein. “It made a lot of sense.”
Hein has a nephew with a doctorate in animal science who works in feedlots, and he wanted Hein to plan the calving and the grazing this way.
“You try to match your calving time to when the cows need the most nutritious grass,” he said. With a planned grazing system, the cows have access to good hay and good grass in the third trimester, and the weather is warmer. “I think the quality of feed is less in the winter.”
Hein said he and Williams will wean in the first two weeks of December.
“I ran them one year until February and I didn’t like that. I kind of like to get the calves off. It is a lot easier to manage the cows without a calf on them,” he said.
While a lot of cows do fine with the calf on them through the winter, the condition of some cows is dragged down with the calf, he said. However, that is not always the case if the herd genetics are improved, he added.
He always stays flexible with his grazing system.
“Last year we had a blizzard in April. I took them home (and) opened the gate,” Hein said, adding that he put them in a feedlot and fed them for three days, then took them back out again. “Your comfort level is the biggest thing and the hardest thing to get past. If it is your comfort zone to feed them in a feedlot – it’s hard to get past that.”
Cow/calf producer Ken Miller, who is also a technician at the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District, also believes in bale grazing in winter after fall grazing crop fields, but doesn’t set the bales out on native prairie.
“I don’t want to introduce other grasses into my native grass,” Miller said.
When placing bales on hay land for bale grazing, producers can take advantage of the nutrients available in the bale, he said. The hay decomposes quite quickly when combined with trampling action from the cattle. For that reason, producers often place the bales on bare spots that they want to fill in.
“You can easily double your grass production the next year when you do this,” Miller said, adding the urine and manure from the cattle, as well as the leftover hay, also fertilize the soil. “The bales leave a lot of carbon for a good grass response next year.”
Bale grazing like Miller does by using temporary electric fence and moving his fence whenever he wants the herd to move to the next set of bales is healthier than feeding his herd at home in the yard, and they eat less when they are out on pasture.
Even in tough winters, cattle prefer being out on pasture and will continue to graze as long as they can see the hay bales or the forage, Miller said.
“If you have stockpiled feed out there, the snow can be quite deep, and it is amazing how those cattle change their behavior. You can really cut your costs. Last year, I burned less than two tanks of fuel to winter 90 cows and calves, and that also included clearing the road out,” he said.