Recent emphasis at SARE, NRCS and other sustainable agriculture outlets regarding soil health has raised interest in pasture management and grazing. Frequently, at grazing conferences and workshops, winter bale grazing is touted as a great way to add nutrients to the soil through spent hay litter left behind after the cattle are done grazing. I’ve heard many farmer-presenters make comments to the effect, “With what bale grazing can do for your soils, you can afford hay at almost any price.” In the north country, making hay is an essential component of producing cattle on grass, often limiting the amount of grazing land available on a particular operation in a particular year, as some land needs to be reserved for hay production.
At the aforementioned events, I often ask if anyone has any data which can reinforce the claims of the value of spent hay litter after bale grazing. None has been produced.
The cost of winter feed is generally considered the largest expense for most graziers, and the need to make that feed on the farm often limits the size of the grazing herd. If hay could be affordably outsourced, then grassfed herds could grow larger as most or all of a farm’s land could be grazed. In an attempt to know the true cost and benefit of purchased hay in a bale-grazing scenario, we must somehow measure the benefit of that hay litter on the pasture in subsequent years.
The Lakeland Agricultural Research Association has a great project documenting the amount of “waste” in a bale grazing system. They note in their report that subsequent year forage production is increased after bale grazing, but they do not determine how much that forage production increased.
Progressive Cattlemen’s magazine reviewed several research projects regarding bale grazing. Again, these projects focus on important aspects of bale grazing, like the labor savings, and the boost in subsequent productivity, but there is not a measure of that boost in productivity.
Has anyone out there in SFA done this? If so, I’d like to hear from you. Most cattle producers are looking to drive the cost of hay down, of course, but what if it were worth more than we think? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.