With winter fast approaching, some cattle will soon be in fields grazing on swaths and bales. Swath, stockpiled, and bale grazing are all ways to extend grazing time and are methods with economic benefits over traditional winter-feeding systems, including reduced labor, equipment, feed, and manure handling costs.

Much of our expertise in swath and bale grazing systems comes from our neighbors to the north. Speaking during one of Canada’s Beef Cattle Research Council webinars, Vern Baron and John Duynisveld, research scientists for Agriculture Agri-Food Canada, discussed swath and bale grazing.

Match forage to the animal

“Successful extended grazing programs match the energy requirements of the cow with the true quality of the forage and/or supplement being offered,” Baron noted. Understanding the true quality of the forage is critical to having a successful grazing system.

During an extended grazing period, Baron explained that cattle require 20 percent more energy than in a drylot system due to the extra energy used to keep warm and to search for feed. Additionally, the differing conditions of the cattle change the amount of energy needed.

Dry cows in good body condition are best suited for extended grazing during winter, while weaned calves are the worst. Through the gestation period, cows require more nutrients, so provide higher quality forage, supplement nutrients, or change your management system as calving season approaches.

Both researchers recommend testing the feed and body condition scoring of the cows to determine the right option for your needs.

Change with the weather

Being unprepared for the harsh conditions of unpredictable winters results in loss of body condition in cattle, which later causes calving issues including low calf birthing weights and desynchronized calving seasons. Duynisveld recommended controlling lice on cattle to promote a healthier and fuller coat throughout the winter.

During colder weather, cattle need high-energy feed. Duynisveld advised to move fences earlier and to not force cattle to finish swaths like in milder temperatures. Additionally, ensuring access to windbreaks promotes healthier cattle when the temperatures drop or the wind picks up.

Move cattle more often when mud becomes an issue. Use extra feed biomass to help cattle navigate on mud and minimize soil damage. Moving cattle more often during wet conditions reduces the risk of mud issues. Duynisveld also suggested moving cattle to pastures that will be tilled in the spring during muddy conditions. This prevents damage to pastures that you want to preserve for next year’s grazing.

Utilize the energy in the feed

“There is value to leaving some biomass in the field in terms of improving soil organic matter, but the more crop that cattle utilize for energy, the more efficient the extended grazing system,” Baron noted. Overall utilization can be high for extended swath or bale grazing systems, and both researchers reported 65 to 90 percent utilization, depending on weather conditions, during past research trials.

For swath grazing, build large swaths about 3 to 4 feet wide and 18 inches tall. The bigger swaths are easier for cattle to find during periods of deep snow when utilization is lowest. Higher yielding crops also improve utilization.

For information and tips on swath and bale grazing, watch the full webinar here.

Michaela King

Michaela King served as the 2019 Hay & Forage Grower summer editorial intern. She currently attends the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and is majoring in professional journalism and photography. King grew up on a beef farm in Big Bend, Wis., where her 4-H experiences included showing both beef and dairy cattle.