Central Grasslands REC, Streeter


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Supplementing Beef Cattle, Bale Grazing Grass Hay in Winter

Michael Undi, Animal Scientist, CGREC

Bale grazing involves setting bales out on pasture and letting cattle feed themselves in winter. Since cattle feed themselves, bale grazing can save money by reducing labor, tractor operating costs, and manure hauling costs. Ensuring that pregnant cows have adequate nutrition is important when bale grazing late in the season. Adequate nutrition promotes proper body condition and calf growth and development. There is, therefore, a need to ensure that cows are fed good quality hay during bale grazing. In cases where hay quality is poor, cows should be supplemented to meet nutrient requirements. The supplementation strategy adopted should fit into the overall goal of minimizing winter feeding costs.


A bale grazing study at Central Grasslands Research Extension Center has been examining methods of supplementing cows bale grazing poor-quality hay in winter. The supplementation methods being examined minimize or eliminate field visits to the bale grazing site. The study started in 2016 and will end in the summer of 2020. The bale grazing site is a 26-acre field that historically was cropland, using a corn and small-grain rotation. The site was divided into eight three-acre paddocks using three-strand, high-tensile wire electric fencing. Forty round hay bales were placed in each paddock in two rows in the fall. Net wrap was removed prior to feeding. Bales were placed on their sides to reduce waste and loss of liquid supplement. Cows were allotted four bales at a time, and access to new bales was controlled using one portable electric wire. Windbreaks were placed in each paddock for protection.

We are examining three strategies of supplementing cows during bale grazing. The strategies are as follows: a) Feed one bale of alfalfa hay for every three bales of poor-quality hay, b) Supplement cows that are grazing poor-quality hay with 4 pounds of DDGS per head per day, and, c) Feed cows that are grazing poor-quality hay treated with a liquid supplement. Approximately 9 gallons of liquid supplement (Quality Liquid Feeds Inc.) was poured onto upright bales. This amount of liquid supplement was calculated to increase hay protein content by approximately 3 percentage points. Bales were allowed to sit upright after pouring until the supplement had seeped into the bale, after which the bales were flipped on their sides. Poor-quality hay used in this study was obtained from a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) field of mixed cool-season grasses that had not been harvested for several years.


The study also examines the role of bale grazing on soil nutrient accumulation by collecting soil samples at two depths, 0 to 6 inches and 6 to 12 inches, and from three distance points, bale center, 10 feet from the bale center and 20 feet from the bale center. As well, we compare soil nutrient accumulation between bale grazed and ungrazed areas.

In the first year (2016), cows supplemented with DDGS had positive daily gains, while supplementation with alfalfa hay or liquid resulted in weight loss. During the winter of 2016, three blizzards led to heavy snow accumulation in the paddocks. Despite snow depths greater than 20 inches in select places, cows were able to bale graze for 70 days before the termination of the study. The trial was terminated because cows no longer were able to reach the water source due to the heavy snowfall. In the second year, more favorable environmental conditions resulted in similar performance in supplemented cows, whereas in the third year, DDGS supplementation clearly was superior to the other supplementation strategies.


The first of soil analysis shows that supplementing bale grazing cows did not influence soil organic matter, nitrate-N, ammonium-N, phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) at two soil depths. Ammonium-N, P and K accumulation were not influenced by distance from the center of the bale. However, nitrate-N content decreased linearly with increasing distance from the bale center. We found no difference in soil nutrients between bale grazed and ungrazed areas.

This study is showing that response to supplementation depends on the type of supplement used, as well as environmental conditions. When winters are harsh, poor-quality grass does not contain adequate amounts of energy, protein and phosphorus to meet nutritional requirement of cows in early to mid-gestation. Under such conditions, supplementation with good-quality alfalfa hay or liquid supplement is not adequate and high-energy supplements such as corn DDGS will be required to meet the nutrient shortfall. Supplementation with good-quality alfalfa hay or grass hay treated with a liquid supplement may be an option during mild winters.


Central Grasslands Forum - Spring 2019

Photos by Michael Undi - NDSU

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