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Bale Grazing: The What, Why, and How

When it comes to grazing, there are so many different methods and methodologies that you can fall down a serious rabbit hole researching and trying to understand them all. And of course, that’s not factoring in the necessary switch in routine that has to happen during winter. Here in Wisconsin we get heavy snowfall during the colder months and as such, we can’t rely on stored forage, though we do all that we can to extend the grazing season each year. Either way, in the winter we switch to feeding hay.   

When we started raising meat goats we would feed hay in the barn, but over the years we’ve made some changes to our routine and have seen some major successes as a result. Agriculture isn’t one size fits all, but we’ve found that what works best for our goats and sheep (as well as our pastures) during the winter is bale grazing.

What is bale grazing?

In a nutshell, bale grazing is when you allow livestock to feed off of a whole, intact round bale, as opposed to unrolling the bale all at once or feeding flake by flake if you’re working with a square bale. As the bale gets eaten, “waste” is left behind (both from the bale and from the livestock) in the form of organic matter that distributes nutrients to the soil and seeds it for the next season. Some choose to spread the waste out in the spring for added benefits, though this isn’t always necessary. 

Generally, and especially based on the number of livestock, multiple bales are placed throughout the pasture in strategic locations – more on that in a minute – so that each animal is able to access the hay equally and so that you can work to improve as much of the soil underneath as possible. 

How to bale graze with goats and sheep

First, if you haven’t already, you will need to figure how many bales to set out to adequately feed your herd. This calculation diagram is a helpful place to start – just switch out cows for goats.

Once you have that figured out you’ll want to consider where to place the bales. Think of each bale like a concentrated dose of nutrients and target areas of your pasture that could use a boost in forage production.

You’ll also need to decide if you want to use a bale feeder or if you’d prefer to have the bale be free standing. We use a four-sided collapsible panel style feeder to graze our goats and sheep to avoid excessive hay waste and for safety reasons – as the bale gets eaten down there’s a risk of it collapsing and causing injuries. You may also consider the use of a feeder as a means to slow eating and further reduce hay waste.

Why we don’t use a bale unroller

We prefer to leave our bales intact for grazing instead of using a bale unroller, for pretty much one, well, two reasons: manure and urine. Being that we have goats and sheep, in comparison to larger ruminants like cows, we have found that the unrolled bales get pooped and peed on faster than they can finish eating them. Eating hay directly off of the ground can increase the risk of gastrointestinal issues from the consuming of parasites and parasite larvae, which we aim to avoid.

Before and after of bale grazing

The cool thing about bale grazing is that, if done properly, you can visually tell the difference in your pasture! However, for a more in depth look, I recommend soil testing to track your progress. This way you can more accurately fine tune any adjustments you need to make. Your local extension office can help with soil testing.

Here’s what our pastures looked like after a season of bale grazing:

bale grazing before and after
Example of bale grazing before and after

Here’s a video that shows more on how our sheep and goats are bale grazing and the results we are seeing in just one season of winter bale grazing and the results the following summer — all within one year.

Advantages of bale grazing

The main advantages we’ve seen in bale grazing has been a marked increase in soil fertility and pasture quality. 

In general, bale grazing:

  • Increases moisture retention from the addition of organic matter
  • Spreads nutrients more thoroughly around the pasture
  • Builds up carbon in the soil for future plant growth
  • Increases plant diversity
  • Protects the soil underneath from increased plant density  
  • Creates fertilizer from manure and urine
  • Requires less equipment to feed, making it more cost effective

Disadvantages of bale grazing

While bale grazing has big benefits, there are some other points to consider before adopting this technique.

In general, bale grazing:

  • Requires some strategic pre-planning. You’ll want to map out how many bales and bale feeders (should you choose to use them) you’ll need and where they’re going before winter
  • Can potentially attract unwanted wildlife
  • Creates more waste than traditionally found with unrolling or feeding flake by flake
  • Requires consideration of the surrounding natural areas. Bale grazing needs to be done away from creeks, rivers, and other water sources to avoid contamination from the concentration of manure and urine  

Here are some of my favorite articles and podcasts relating to bale grazing:

Articles

Podcasts

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