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Bale Grazing Shows Promise

NDSU Extension study shows advantages of bale grazing, the practice of allowing livestock to graze hay bales in a hayfield or improved pasture.

Cattle Bale Grazing
Cattle Bale Grazing (NDSU photo)

Progressive cattle ranchers always are looking for ways to make their operations more profitable. What once was seen as a lazy way to feed cattle now is offering producers a way to reduce labor and fuel costs, boost soil health and improve manure distribution.

Bale grazing is the practice of allowing livestock to graze hay bales in a hayfield or improved pasture. Ranchers space individual round bales of hay across a field in strategic lines looking much like a checkerboard from the sky.

Animals are given access to a portion of bales at one time and then are rotated to different sets of bales or different pastures with bales already positioned based on the animal’s nutrient needs.

The entire supply of hay to be fed through the winter is set out at one time in the fall, and a tractor may not be needed to feed the cow herd for the rest of the winter.

Sampling forarages for bale grazing reserach (NDSU photo)  “We know from research done in Canada that bale grazing had an effect on forage production and soil health and we wanted to see if it would have the same effects for our North Dakota producers,”

says Mary Berg, NDSU Extension livestock environmental management specialist.

Including Berg, an NDSU Extension team of rangeland and soil health specialists and NDSU Extension agents conducted a two-year bale grazing study at four participating North Dakota ranches.

Ranchers distributed their bales based on their normal routine and fed between January and April in 2016. Four control sites with no bales were placed directly outside the bale-grazed area.

Soils data were collected during the fall of 2015 prior to the start of the project and again in the fall of 2016 and 2017 to measure changes in soil quality. Data were collected during the grazing period to make sure animal performance was not compromised.

Forage data were collected in June 2016 and again in 2017 to look at forage quality and production. The same data were collected in the area outside the bale-grazed area.

“Preliminary data suggests that herbage production was greater on the bale-grazed treatment 15 feet from the bale center; however, it was not different within the zone 0 to 10 feet from the bale center six months after treatment,” says Berg. “Bale grazing enhanced grass crude protein and phosphorus content six months after treatment from the bale center out to 10 feet.

“On the soil quality side, soil nitrates, phosphorus and potassium at the 0- to 6-inch soil depth increased on the bale-grazed treatment side, and the percent of organic matter at that depth increased up to 1.4-fold at the bale-grazed sites, compared with the control sites,” she says.

Data collected during the 2017 growing season is being analyzed to determine if improvements may be seen 18 to 20 months after treatment on any areas that were impacted negatively and if the positive benefits are retained for two growing seasons on the other sites.

For more information:

Mary Berg, 701-652-2951,

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