We round out our blog series on winter hay bale grazing with lessons learned and thoughts for next winter.
See the links below for earlier parts in the series:
Winter Hay Bale Grazing Part 1 of 4
Winter Hay Bale Grazing Part 2 of 4
Winter Hay Bale Grazing Part 3 of 4
This was our first winter implementing hay bale grazing. We were pleasantly surprised at how well our animal’s adapted to this innovative form of winter feeding. We worked for our animals and they worked for us. We did not escape this experiment without making a few mistakes, though. Below, you will find a list of some lessons we learned as well as our ideas and thoughts for our next season of winter hay bale grazing.
- Where did the fence/wire go?!
We made our fences 3 feet tall in anticipation of the snowfall expected for a northern Maine winter. We were hit with a hard winter, though, with snowfall doubling what we expected.
Consequently, we have spent a lot of time digging fences and wire out of the snow. Luckily, our cows have been relatively well-behaved and have not capitalized too much on our beginner’s mistake.
Next year, we will modify our fences and raise them another foot or so. Deciding how tall to make your fences will depend on what kind of winter conditions are typical for your area. Once you have decided what height to make your fences, we recommend that you up that height another foot or so. Just to be safe!
2. Get out of there, cow!
There have been a few times that we have looked out our window or have been walking towards the hay bales and noticed that something looked a bit off. We look a little closer and sure enough, a cow has found herself inside the fence around the hay bale row and she is greedily munching away on a brand new hay bale – all to her herself.
The mistake here was a simple one but we didn’t realize the potential for it until it actually happened: don’t place the poly wire too low on the hay bale OR too high! This concern, though, became obsolete as we delved deeper into winter and the snowfall and ice accumulation prevented such an escape. For those beginning months of winter, though, we learned that we needed to be very careful of wire placement as to prevent a cow from stepping over it.
3. Do You Trust Us?
This probably falls more into the category of advice and tips but could easily turn into a lesson learned. To make winter hay-bale grazing work, you have to develop some level of trust with your herd. To provide some quick background, we purchased our first herd of beef cattle – 10 red angus heifers – in late-June of 2013. From the day they arrived at our farm, we make it a top priority to integrate ourselves within the herd in hopes of gaining a bit of their trust. We went about this in many ways. Most simply, we would go into the pasture and walk around the animals, talking softly and observing their behavior. We started to see the herd dynamic and the individual personalities of each animal. A herd leader became quite obvious from early on. We observed a definite pecking order. In return, the animals got very used to our presence.
They were starting to get more comfortable around us. They got used to us talking to them. They got used to us working on fences, water troughs, water pipelines and so on in their pasture. They started to anticipate their daily ration of mineral. After much work and repetition, we got the herd to follow us as we rotated them through pastures every 2-3 days. They were learning to trust us.
For our effort and time during that summer and fall, we are rewarded daily with our winter hay-bale grazing. When the time comes to switch to a new hay-bale grazing location, they follow us. They stand back and patiently watch us while we adjust wires, shovel snow, cut out hay, and remove tarps.
They don’t let us give them body massages (well, one of them does) but they have come a long ways from their first day on the farm, where you couldn’t get within 10 feet of them and they were off and running.
The trust building will continue this spring as our cows calve and into the summer as they are bred-back and rotated from pasture to pasture. If you work with your herd a little bit each day and keep your patience and a good attitude, you will be amazed at the result.
4. How many hay bales have they eaten?!
While we made every effort to keep track of the date that each hay bale was finished and the next one started, we did start to lose ground when we transitioned to our 2nd hay bale grazing location. The level of snow and ice – on top and surrounding our hay bale rows – was massive and we started to have trouble recognizing the end of one bale and the start of another. The reason why we wanted to keep track of each hay bale was so we could calculate and monitor the pounds of hay eaten per day/per animal. We were able to keep up with the count in our 1st grazing location, and we got a really good idea of the lbs/day/animal of hay consumed.
In order to calculate the consumption rate during the entire winter, we have a few ideas for improving our ability to count bales for next winter. One idea is for us to mark the beginning of each hay bale with a distinctive marker, prior to snowfall. One idea we have thrown around is to attach a length of fluorescent pink or orange flagging tape to the top, center of each bale. We could do this at the same time we are attaching our tarps.
5. Orientation of hay bales
Be sure to study your land before choosing locations to place your bales. One of our bale locations was a place where snow tends to accumulate in deep drifts…..but we didn’t know that until this winter. Next year we’ll avoid this spot for late winter bale grazing. Also pay attention to the way the bales are oriented with the prevailing wind. Our bale stacks that were oriented parallel to the northwest wind tended to have snow blown clear around them and made for easier grazing.
This concludes our blog series on Winter Hay Bale Grazing. We hope that this series proves useful to you as you weigh your options for feeding your cattle next winter. This was our first winter with hay bale grazing, and we do plan to implement this form of feeding next winter as well. We have found this form of winter feeding to be cost-effective and extremely manageable for the scope of our operation.
With one season under our belt, we will be approaching next winter better equipped and a bit more knowledgeable on what we want to do and what we do not want to do. Surprises always abound, though, when working with livestock!
So, we tell ourselves to: Keep your patience. Stay creative and innovative. Improvise when needed. Stay calm. Respect your animals. And, most importantly, have fun!!
We always love to hear feedback and suggestions on new, innovative techniques and methods in the beef cattle industry.
Thank you for joining us.
We will leave you with a few more pictures to enjoy!
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