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Bale grazing - what, why and how?

In November ’22, we began experimenting with keeping some of our South Devon beef cattle outside over the winter months, following in the footsteps of a farm on the outskirts of Oxford who had had a couple of years’ success on similarly wet and heavy soils, and kindly offered to show us the ropes!



There are two mains ways of keeping cows outside over winter on farms with typically wet soils, and many reasons for doing so - the biggest for us being that it saves a huge amount of money, and reduces the likelihood of illness in our cows, building hardy calves.


The most common way to outwinter cows is to set out a metal ring feeder in a field close to somewhere that you can easily drive a tractor to, so you can feed them their forage by loading a bale straight into the feeder. The cows stay in the same place from one day to the next, repeatedly impacting the ground and on heavier clay soils, often make a very sticky mess, so it only really makes sense on fields due to be ploughed and reseeded in the spring. While this is easier for the farmer, it's not great for the land nor the livestock, and while it saves on bedding costs, there is no cost saving on feed - it is essentially just an outside barn.


The less common method (and the way we are now doing things) requires a completely different mindset. We are trying to get as much of the nutrition the cows need from the pasture itself, which we manage in the summer specifically so that it is at its optimum for the winter period. Ideally, we’d have enough productive land to be able to provide 100% of the cows diet through standing forage (also known as foggage grass).


Leaving tall grass plants in the ground through the winter does a few things:


  1. It creates a protective matt which keeps the soil warmer all winter, and the soil microbes happier. When the soil is warmer, they continue to photosynthesise and feed sugars to the soil microbes who in turn mine for and provide the plants with the nutrients they need. While doing this, they create humus which builds organic matter levels in the soil. And the more organic matter (or carbon) in the soil, the better it is at absorbing and retaining water, so that even in periods of drought, there is still moisture in the soil for the plants to drink.

  2. It protects the soil from erosion caused by extreme winds and rain, as well as stopping the soil from capping. The more plant biomass above the soil, the faster the rain is slowed as it falls from the sky: rain droplets hit the plant up to a metre above the ground, and by the time the moisture reaches the soil it has slowed down enough that it can soak straight into the pores in the soil surface, rather than just creating a puddle and running off. The same goes for the wind: in extreme winter storms, exposed soil can quite literally be blown off the farm, taking precious nutrients with it and contaminating our watercourses (this is what has been happening in the Wye Valley). Rain hitting the soil at its maximum velocity also causes tiny clay soil particles to bounce up from the ground and then land back down on top, capping the soil. This means that all future rain can’t soak in at all and runs off, causing flooding and making the pastures less resilient to drought.

  3. When a heavy cow stands on a field with very limited plant matter above the ground, all that weight is transferred down through the cows leg and hoof and can really compact the soil, especially if repeated many times over and over. However, if you effectively cover the field in a thick soft matt of grasses and herbs (the denser, the better), the damage that hooves can do the soil is very limited.


However, before we can feed our cows entirely on standing grass, we really need to improve our soil’s fertility so that we are able to grow enough forage on the land we have available. And one of the ways to do that is by bale grazing.


What is bale grazing?


This means supplementing the standing forage with hay bales, that are rolled out in front of the cows each day, for them to eat alongside the fresh grass. Although this costs us a bit more, it frees up land in the autumn for grazing other livestock, and has a long list of other benefits too:


Firstly, it provides the cows with a very healthy feedstock throughout the entire winter. We generally use hay rather than silage as the mix of fibrous summer meadow hay and standing grass keeps the microbes in their rumens very happy. Because the hay is normally cut in late summer, it has a lot of nutritious flowers and seeds in it which are full of energy to help keep the cows feeling satiated and warm, even when it's cold and damp out in the field. The standing grass will have lost some of its nutrition as winter sets in and while we could feed them off it alone, they will lose a bit of condition over the winter. And this is something we want to avoid as much as possible as they are a spring calving herd and we really want them to be thriving at the end of the winter.


Secondly, it builds carbon and soil structure. While we want the cows to eat most of the hay, we don’t want them to eat it all. When we plan the grazing, we plan for them to eat about 75% of both the standing grass and the rolled out hay as we want them to trample the remaining 25% into the ground where it can be broken down and gobbled up by the myriad of organisms living in the soil and on its surface, producing humus and building organic matter levels in the soil. Many farmers view this 25% of the bale that we leave behind as waste. But it is far from it! It is investing in the future of the land and increasing our ability to hold water all year round, which will become more and more important as the planet continues to warm and weather patterns get more volatile.


Thirdly, it adds fertility - masses of it. Each time a bale is fed to our cows, the nutrients they don't use directly for growing muscle or fat or producing milk for their calves is deposited straight back onto the land in their cow pats! We move the herd on a daily basis across the pasture, which means this manure is spread very evenly across the land, where it is quickly processed by the soil organisms beneath and incorporated into the topsoil. Normally, to achieve this we would have to cart trailer loads of muck out from the barns and drive a tractor up and down the field spreading it out mechanically. But by bale grazing, we miss this entire step - saving lots of time and money. And the spring grass that grows after this huge dump of fertility is thick and lush and dense - and well, just very productive. Exactly what we need.



Lastly, in the bales that are spread out, there are millions of seeds from the wildflowers and other plants that populate our ancient hay meadows (where the hay is harvested). Some of these seeds are eaten by the cows as they munch on the hay, some are eaten by the wild birds that live on or visit the farm each winter, but a great number are trampled into the ground ready to germinate in the spring. This makes it a very effective way of increasing the diversity and resilience of our pastures without using a tractor or buying in expensive seed from a merchant.


What are the challenges of bale grazing?


Bale grazing definitely has its challenges. It requires that you think and plan your growing season quite carefully all summer, and get your calculations right - about group size, days grazing, the route the animals need to take around the fields, the number of bales to put out and where to put them, your plan Bs, Cs and Ds, your water system, your fencing system, your daily routine, and much more.


We started planning for this winter last spring, when we decided how many cows we were going to keep outside, for how long and where. This meant we could set aside the field from August onwards so that its autumn regrowth wasn’t grazed off, and there would be something for the cattle to eat come December, and more importantly a protective matt to protect the soil from the cows’ hooves.


We are now part way through our second season of this and while we continue to make plenty of mistakes and learn some hard lessons, it is already paying off - with over £10,000 of cost savings so far. Every year on a farm throws its challenges, and the past two years have been particularly challenging - with the worst drought in South-East England in over 150 years, and then one of the wettest summers on record, followed by what is looking to be one of the mildest and wettest winters on record too.


The big challenge we are having at the moment is a bit complicated. During the wettest period in January (just before we were forced to bring them inside), we were moving the cows into a new cell twice a day or more to help protect the ground and give them somewhere mud-free to lie down. This is one of the techniques you can use to cope with really wet weather, but the result is that you lose grazing days (as the number of daily cells were pre-planned way back in the summer). We also increased the size of the herd when they came back out of the barns, but forgot to consider how that would affect the feed calculation! And lastly and most frustratingly, we never got round to setting up the third field we had earmarked for outwintering on. We didn’t manage to do that because the wet summer gave us very few windows to cut the hay, and so we didn’t get it harvested until September. And since then, it’s been so wet that we've had only a couple of opportunities to drive the tractors and trailers out onto the fields to set the bales out, without risking serious compaction to the soils - but we did as much as we could.


So now, we only have about 10 days left of bale grazing cells, but more like 40 days left in which they need feeding! We have the silage bales to feed them, but not the straw to bring them in. But we also can't get them silage out to them. What we really need and have been waiting for is a really hard frost for a few days so we can get the bales out and have somewhere to take the cows if the wet weather continues, or a long period of dry weather. Fingers crossed!


It is vital that we manage this project based on the actual weather and ground conditions as they can quickly wreak havoc on even the best laid plans - we must remain adaptable! One of the trickiest aspects is balancing the amount of feed they are eating. We want them to have enough food to keep them healthy and satisfied, but if we roll out too much hay there is a chance of leaving behind too much, which not only means we could run out of bales, but anything thicker than a 10cm mat of hay left on the ground will leave it vulnerable to anaerobic digestion as opposed to the desired aerobic process, killing the grass underneath.


We will continue to keep this blog post updated as we continue to experiment and learn - thanks for making it this far! Any questions, please email us at farmoffice@northastonfarms.co.uk


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