Letting beef cows graze on bales and snow in winter pastures with a restricted system is working well for some Canadian ranchers. It's simple and economical, and can last until spring grazing.

“You put the bales out and the cows go to the feed. You just control access with an electric fence,” says Bart Lardner, Western Beef Development Centre (WBDC) research scientist, Lanigan, Saskatchewan.

WBDC began bale grazing with replicated trials in 2003. The first two winters, it had stocking rates of 680 cow-days/acre for 110 days. The test herds were on Russian wild ryegrass pasture.

Trials in 2005 and 2006 had stocking rates at about 150 cow-days/acre, on barley stubble with barley hay bales. “We're looking at differences between feed cleanup, residue and nutrients left behind with the two systems,” says Lardner.

He estimates expenses at 10-20% less than feeding in feedlots. It takes time to organize the bales for restricted feeding, and it takes time to remove bale strings or nets. After that, the rest is managing consumption. Stock shouldn't need grain or supplement.

In addition, bale grazing generates up to three times more nitrogen than the site would gain from cleaning out a feedlot.

“All the nitrogen is captured on the feed site and available for next year's growth,” says Lardner. “That's a huge deposition of nutrients a producer can manage.”

The system will only work with feed testing and good planning. Bales should be arranged in rows by quality, by weight/day/cow and with allowance for changing conditions. If cows need 38 lbs/day of average hay for the first trimester of pregnancy, they may need 40 lbs/day of better hay in the second. Keep the best hay and highest feeding rate for last.

Site selection and bale spacing are other basics.

“Place your bales so you get even distribution of manure; make sure cattle clean up more than 80% of the feed,” he says. “They're not going to clean it all up, but if you choose your site well, the residual feed can be worked in or harrowed before seeding.”

Before calving and spring thaw, bring the herd back to where it can be observed, he suggests.

Plastic bale strings can be removed by hand as winter progresses. Options include baling with sisal or baling without twine if bales are fed on site.

Be cautious about bale-grazing youngstock, Lardner cautions.

“They tend to need a little better ration than older cows. Your replacement females are your future breeding stock. You want to grow them out sufficiently. Give them higher-quality feed and have a good water source for them. A mature cow can do quite well on soft, powdery snow.”

Brothers Hugh and Robert Blair began bale grazing on their own about the same time as the WBDC trials began. It has replaced swath grazing and grazing on rolled-out bales for their entire herd.

Their cattle ranch, Whitemud River Farms near Woodside, Manitoba, produces grass and beef on 4,000 acres. From mid-May to late September, the herd and up to 1,000 yearlings are rotationally grazed. Some tall pasture is stockpiled for late fall grazing.

After fall feeder sales and weaning, the Blairs organize the winter feed supply. They stand round hay bales in neat rows, sorted by quality and weight, at several feeding sites. They use Cow Bytes software to organize the details.

About 550 animals — cows, bred heifers, yearlings and calves — are separated into three groups. They bale graze from early November through mid-May.

This is their first winter of bale grazing calves.

“It's a trial to see how well it works,” says Hugh Blair. “Older cows are a little hard on heifers, so it just becomes a competition if they're not separated. Heifers get a little better-quality feed. Calves are 500-600 lbs when weaned, so we put them in a better sheltered area and give them the best alfalfa we have.”

The brothers only need about 90 minutes and a truck every two days for feeding.

“With other methods, we were close to $1 or $1.20 a day. Right now, we're feeding cows for 82¢ a day and our calves for around 43¢,” says Blair.

One 90-hp loader tractor is all they need for putting out bales.

“We got rid of bale shredders and other tractors,” he says. “Five years ago we had a $9,700 manure bill, and this year we don't have any.”

The herd is healthy, much quieter and easier to handle. The Blairs are getting exercise walking through the herd and snow to roll up and move the control wire that restricts access.

“You get a really good look at your animals, and they seem way more content,” says Blair.

A winter watering system is available. First-calf heifers and calves have fresh water all winter. If there isn't enough snow, the brothers can bring in water for the mature cows.

“The old cows prefer snow once they get onto it,” he says. “They're not filling their stomachs with cold water and shivering for hours.”

Two control wires connect to permanent electric fence at each end. In between, snow supports the portable posts. If there isn't enough snow, bales in the next row can support the posts. The second wire provides backup.

In late March, about three weeks before calving, cows and pregnant heifers are moved to a fresh area to continue bale grazing. They have more room and can stay on bales until the grass is ready.

“When you get into bale grazing, the better you know the weight and quality of your bales, the more money you can save and the more efficient you can make this thing work,” says Blair.