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Grazing

Letting cows feed themselves during winter is one of the best ways to save on feed costs.  Bale grazing provides some economic and environmental advantages over some traditional feeding methods.  

Bale grazing is not new, but acceptability of this feeding method is relatively new.   Lorne Klein, grazing and forage specialist for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, says a few people were doing it 30 years ago but may have been thought of as poor managers – leaving bales out in the field for cows to eat.  

“Over the past decade, people began to realize the benefits of this method,” says Klein.

Grazing programs

Most of the early bale grazing programs involved hauling bales to a specific site, placing them in a grid pattern and allocating a certain number of bales every three to five days using electric wire.  Now some producers are letting cows eat bales on the hayfields where the bales are dropped – which saves more time, labor and fuel.

“When producers bale graze on fields at the proper rate, they enhance vegetation – not at a density where they kill the vegetation. Producers can recover 34 percent of the original nitrogen that was in the bale,” Klein explains. “If producers do it properly and manage the pasture properly afterward, they allow the vegetation to recover and grow.”  

The plants explode with new vigor.

Even if the producer has to haul bales and place them on a pasture that needs fertilizer, this is more effective and cheaper than hauling manure out to that pasture or using commercial fertilizer.  

The results and benefits also last longer than commercial fertilizer because producers have a combination of nutrients and litter from manure and the small amount of wasted hay.

Twines

Producers have tried various types of twine in bale grazing and ways to avoid the challenge of removing frozen twines from round bales.  

Leaving unwrapped bales in the hayfield is an option, but the strategy only works if they are eaten fairly soon after baling. Otherwise bales come apart and won’t shed moisture, wildlife get into them more easily, and there is more spoilage.  It’s also impossible to move them if the rancher needs to relocate the feed.

There are two kinds of twine – sisal and plastic.  

Sisal twine can be left on the bales. Some producers remove plastic twine before it freezes to the bales with freezing rain or melting snow.  

“If bales will be grazed in the field where they are made, sisal twine is a big advantage because producers don’t have to clean it up.  They can leave it on the bales and it’s biodegradable. There’s an advantage to leaving twine on because it helps hold the bale together as the cows eat it,” says Klein.

Plastic twines should always be removed because they can last too long in the environment and can be a mess in the field for next haying season. 

Twines are also dangerous to cattle because they may get caught in their hooves or around their head or legs. Ear tags may get caught and pulled off by twines.  

Plastic twines are hazardous for cattle if ingested, since they don’t break down as readily in the stomach as sisal and may create indigestion or plug the digestive tract.  

Net wrap

Net wrap is often used, even though it costs more.  There is less leaf loss, and it’s faster when making hay. The bale is completely wrapped with just 1.5 to two revolutions.  

Leaving net wrap on the bale also acts as a feeder, slowing down cattle’s ability to break the bale apart and waste it.

“Most people with big herds are using net wrap and leave it on the bales.  They may pick up the net wrap later in the winter, but it’s easiest to clean it up in the spring,” he comments. “It’s amazing how easy it is to pull net wrap out of the litter and manure, and cows don’t seem to have any problem with it.”

“The net wrap is fairly easy to pull out, compared to pulling twine out of a grazed bale.  When cattle eat on a bale wrapped with plastic twine, the twine is tangled in amongst the hay that’s left and it can be a nightmare trying to get the twine out,” says Klein.

In addition to regulating use of hay, Klein notes that producers can be more efficient in their feeding programs.

“The net wrap reduces waste, because it’s difficult for cows to start eating those bales. They tend to gang up on the bales and finish them off before they start on a new one,” he says.  

Some producers are now letting cows into the whole field, eating three to four weeks’ worth of net-wrapped bales, he explains.  This eliminates the task of moving electric fence every day or every few days.  

Electric fencing

There are many ways to use electric fencing to control the bale grazing.  

“The most important thing producers should know is if they are going to use electric fence in the winter is to train cows before winter.  If they’ve dealt with it during summer, cows will respect it in the winter and won’t get into the next batch of bales before the producer allows them to.  By winter the cows are not interested in challenging the fence,” Klein says.

“Some people use one strand, others use two strands, where one is hot, one is ground,” he notes. “It doesn’t really matter what the producer uses as long as the cows already respect a hot wire and don’t question it.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Stacy Davies, who manages Roaring Springs Ranch near French Glen, Ore. has been participating in a project with University of Nevada-Reno, working with range scientists to look at the impacts of fall grazing to control and manage cheatgrass.

“Our project here is similar to projects across Nevada. We graze cheatgrass during October and November, using protein supplements,” Davies explains. “This removes the buildup of dry cheatgrass that creates a thick litter, which makes ideal conditions for cheatgrass seedlings the next spring.”

The shade created at ground level is also disadvantageous for growth of perennials.

“When we get fall rain, cheatgrass grows again and produces green forage. If we graze in the fall, whether cheatgrass is green or dry, we remove the plant and kill the next year’s cheatgrass,” Davies adds. “Then, the next spring, perennial grasses get a chance to grow without competition from the cheatgrass.”  

This process begins to tip the balance back toward more perennials and less cheatgrass.

Grazing timing

“We have also effectively grazed cheatgrass in the spring,” says Davies, noting spring grazing works as long as producers monitor their grass. “As soon as the perennials start growing enough that the cattle start grazing the perennials, we have to get off that pasture.”

Typically, cheatgrass grows well ahead of perennials, he adds, so if the timing is right, producers can effectively graze cheatgrass and remove cattle before perennials begin to grow

“In the fall, it’s easier to manage the grazing because perennials are not trying to grow in the fall. They are dormant by then, and it doesn’t hurt them,” Davies explains.

He comments, “In the fall, we graze dry cheatgrass with dry cows. In the spring, we may be grazing new green cheatgrass with calving cows.” 

“If we put them out there very early, we give them a protein supplement, and if it’s later, there is enough nutrition in the green cheatgrass – as long as there’s enough volume,” he stipulates. “As they eat the new grass, they also get some of the old dry grass from the year before.”

He adds, “The new grass gives them the nutrition they need, and the old, grass helps fill them up.”

Land management

Grazing strategies to control cheatgrass are often most effective on private land, according to Davies, who notes provide lands provide the flexibility to utilize the pastures as needed. 

“We can manage grass according to biological readiness and function rather than by the calendar, as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) does,” Davies explains. “Too often on public lands the calendar dictates when we can turn cows out on pasture and when we have to move them.”

He emphasizes, “We try to graze when we are biologically driven, not calendar driven.”  

In some regions, however, BLM managers are recognizing and accepting the value of fall grazing.  

Advantages over herbicide

“There is an advantage to using grazing instead of herbicide to bring the balance back to perennials,” according to Davies, who adds, “By using grazing management instead of chemicals, we reduce the cheatgrass but don’t completely eliminate it, and the cheatgrass will out-compete other weeds that are worse, like medusahead.” 

Grazing facilitates gradual change in the composition of rangeland species, rather than the radical change created when using herbicides, he says. 

“In addition, we remove fine fuels with grazing and reduce fire frequency. All too often, once we get cheatgrass on a range, it burns every five or six years.  But if we graze in the fall and remove the fine fuel and litter, this reduces fire frequency, and we can control the fires,” Davies comments. 

When cheatgrass is removed, Davies also says fires aren’t as catastrophic. But when a cheatgrass plain burns, the first plants to repopulate the rangeland are cheatgrass and weeds, which creates a vicious cycle.  

“All too often, public land agencies think the answer is to rest the pasture, but this just makes it worse,” he says. “On our private lands, we go right in and graze the cheatgrass off in the fall, giving perennials a chance to respond.”

“We’ve been able to change rangelands from annuals back to perennials,” he says.  

Positive results

“Here on our ranch, we started spring grazing cheatgrass areas 22 years ago. We’ve only been doing the fall grazing to remove cheatgrass for the last six years. We have seen good results,” Davies says.

Sage grouse populations make cheatgrass a bigger threat.

“The biggest threat to sage grouse is wildfires and conversion of rangelands to annual grasses. The more things we can do to prevent the fire, the better. Grazing is a crucial piece of the management. We need to remove enough of the grass that we don’t get those big fires,” he says.

For example, on his ranch, Davies notes that 2012 grazing reduced fine fuels to a level that mean no fire touched their ranch. Immediately north of the ranch, however, the Homestead Fire burned 300,000 acres, and to the east, the Longdraw Fire burned more than 1 million acres. 

“On our private land, we were able to concentrate grazing in the risky areas,” he explains. “We thoroughly grazed the lower elevation lands to remove cheatgrass and other fine fuels in the sagebrush areas and eliminated the fire danger. When the lightning storms came, we had some strikes but no fires.”

Davies emphasizes, “The key to cheatgrass management is first to keep it from coming into the pastures, but once we have it, early spring and late fall grazing can be beneficial in reducing it and favoring the perennials.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

“One of the things we need to think about when we’re talking about adaptive grazing is it’s not necessarily about 10,000 miles of electric fence and moving cattle every two hours,” commented Sean McGrath, a rancher and consultant on ranch and grazing management. “It’s really using our resources that we have available in whatever region we’re in and on our operation to match plans and animals together over the course of a year.” 

During a webinar, titled “Adaptive Grazing and Grazing Management,” held on Feb. 12, McGrath explained ranchers will use different techniques to adapt to the grazing conditions on individual farms and ranches. 

Key principles of grazing

As cattle producers in range situations, McGrath said, “We’re in the business of capturing sunlight and water and converting it into food.” 

In these systems, plants – including both native grasses and forbs and invasive species and weeds – want to grow, and land managers desire plant growth. As a result, managers must make decisions to foster plant growth. 

“We all know our operations need to focus on energy efficiency,” McGrath said. “On our ranches, these plants are solar panels. To make them efficient, we need to make sure that our solar panels, the plants, cover the ground.”

Cow requirements

While the forage is important, McGrath said producers must also match the cow’s energy requirement to the available forage. 

“When the cow’s energy requirements are lowest, we want the lowest quality forage,” he said, noting crude protein requirements are smallestduring the second trimester of pregnancy. “During rebreeding, crude protein and energy recruitments jump dramatically.”

“Basically, that cow has a three-month-old calf, is trying to get in shape to re-breed and has huge requirements. In a perfect world, that would be when we have the most and highest quality forage available for that cow,” McGrath said. “When we’re designing these systems, we may have to supplement cows or we need to plan our grazing and breeding times.”

Plant growth

During plant growth, yield increases over time as the plant grows, but quality in terms of crude protein declines.

“Where we’re really trying to focus our grazing is to keep plants in phase two,” McGrath said, noting plants have some leaves but have not yet completely matured or dried out. 

McGrath further uses grass hay fields as an example of plant growth.

“We would never cut a hay field June 1 and come back on June 10 to cut it again,” he said. “We would allow the hay field to recover before we take more hay to maximize yield and quality. Pastures are no different.”

The biggest question, McGrath said, is how to influence cows to graze where and when we want them to. Influencing grazing allows ranchers to get the most from their pastures.

“We want to match plant growth to our cow requirements,” McGrath commented.

Electric fence

Electric fence can be a useful tool for ranchers to use to create smaller pastures that influence cattle to utilize grass better. 

“We talk about electric fence because it can be cost efficient,” he said. “The biggest problem we run into when we’re working with electric fence is people don’t put enough ground rods in.” 

Wildlife damage can be another concern, but McGrath said wildlife will also learn to avoid it.

“We use a lot of portable fence to control grazing on paddocks, depending on weather,” he described. “When we look at costs, it takes one-third of the posts and significantly less wire, as well as significantly less labor.” 

In the wintertime, however, fences may not be as conductive, and a ground wire may help, he added. 

Grazing patterns

After a pasture is separated into various paddocks, McGrath said he doesn’t like using the term “rotational” to describe the grazing strategy.

“I don’t like the term rotational grazing. It implies we start at one paddock, then go to the second and third the same way year after year,” he commented. “We want to start in the paddock with the best condition. A good rule of thumb is, when we have a paddock in better condition than the one cows are currently in, move to that paddock.” 

Not using a set route through paddocks allows grass to be used after it has had the most recovery.

Other options

“Not all terrain is conducive to electric fence, so we use the landscape and natural features of the landscape to control cattle movement,” McGrath said.

Steep hills, rivers or streams and other features can help to control cattle. While the natural features may not work perfectly, they can help to influence cattle movement. 

Short fences, combined with natural features, however can be very effective. 

“Just accessing and using the landscape available can be a very effective solution in using grazing to improve the landscape,” he said. 

Supplements

Moving salt and mineral around pastures to influence utilization, as well as feeding in different areas of pastures can accomplish two goals. It allows ranchers to meet their cow’s nutritional needs while also moving the cattle across the landscape. 

“We can also move water around an operation, and cattle will follow the water,” McGrath explained. “We can move animals around and use our forage base without building 500 miles of fence.”

“Adaptive Grazing and Grazing Management” was sponsored by the Beef Cattle Research Council. 

Saige Albert, managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup, can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

As record high grass prices take their time coming down, many livestock producers have been forced to seek out alternative ways of keeping their cattle business in the black. 

One alternative producers are taking a second look at is cover crop grazing. 

Greg Rasmussen started planting cover crops on a piece of farm ground north of Boelus, Neb. in an effort to stop soil erosion and improve soil health. What he didn’t bargain for was the additional benefits of better yields and higher nutritional value for grazing cattle. 

In fact, when Rasmussen had his cover crop mixture of sorghum and millet analyzed at one of the laboratories, he was told the mix wasn’t only just good for grazing but exceptional. Its nutritional value was comparable to high-quality alfalfa.

Grazing considerations

“One of the things about cover crop grazing that I have found important is grazing time,” he explains. “If we wait too long, the quality goes down. It gets tall and stalky, and the cattle will leave a lot behind.” 

“I try for more timely grazing and just let them take the tops off so regrowth can occur. It is good for the cattle and for soil health,” he notes.

Because the cover crop can be better quality than grass, Rasmussen says he leases it to cattle producers by the day and bases the cost on pasture prices. 

“I feel like producers are getting a good deal because the cover crop is actually better quality than what is in the pasture at that time, and the cattle show that coming off of it,” he says. 

Soil benefits

Mike Baker of Thermopolis found out how much his soil health could improve when he started experimenting with no-till and limited tillage. Within a few years, his corn yields had increased to the point he was overrun with residue. 

“We are nearing 200 bushel an acre, so we have a lot of corn residue to harvest through the cows,” he explains. 

In the barley stubble, annual forages, like turnips, barley, radishes, peas, collards and a broadleaf are planted in the fall. These fields are sprayed in the spring and planted to corn. 

“We don’t have summer range, but we take in cows to graze all this residue. We rent it out by animal unit month (AUM) and probably provide 500 to 600 AUMs of grazing each year for our renter,” he explains. “What I like about it is it recycles the nutrients back into the ground and aids in the no-till the next year without having all that surface residue left over from the prior crop.”

Stocking rates

Of particular importance when grazing cover crops is stocking rate, how much biomass can be taken and how much should be left. Mary Drewnowski, beef systems specialist with the University of Nebraska, says time of grazing cover crops is a crucial component of how much regrowth will occur. 

“If we are grazing it in the fall, we won’t get a lot of regrowth on warm season grasses like sorghum-Sudan, but if there are oats underneath that, they will grow with a little bit of rain,” she says. “If we don’t graze until mid-October, there will be no regrowth, so it would be possible to graze more but still try to maintain adequate ground cover.”

Soil health

Rasmussen says on his own fields, he likes to take half and leave half. 

“My goal is to make my soil healthier, so it can hold more moisture and grazing cattle on cover crops helps me accomplish that,” he says. 

“The biggest thing we need to remember is we can’t transition overnight,” he tells crop producers. “Our soil is like a drug addict. It’s addicted to what we have been feeding it, so if we take it all away, it will react.”
“We can’t completely take away fertilizer and chemicals, or it will be a disaster. But, with time, if we continue with this cover process, bring in some cattle and be smart about seed costs, the investment isn’t huge. We can get 60 to 90 days of grazing and some big soil benefits, so it is a real win-win,” he states.

Watch for a follow-up article next week on how to construct a cover crop grazing lease agreement. Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Not all the time do producers have enough pasture and grass for their livestock, which leads them to look for alternative pastures to lease to accommodate the overflow of their animals. 

Leasing pastures is often the only way to provide adequate feed to a cattle herd throughout the year. 

Basics

When leasing grazing pastures, some basic considerations to keep in mind are good fences, a sufficient water supply and an ample amount of forage production from the pasture that will be adequate for the number of animals a producer has to feed.

“Some of those things are pretty obvious, and some of them are not so obvious,” says Mike Smith, grazing management and behavior professor at University of Wyoming. “Annual precipitation, especially in the spring, has a lot to do with what affects forage production.” 

Pasture productivity

Smith adds, “It would be a good idea for a person who is looking for a pasture lease to have an arrangement with the owner of the land with respect to the forage availability or some way of determining compensation for failure of a pasture not providing what it was advertised for.”

Smith further explains that if a producer is considering leasing a pasture before they know what kind of forage supply the pasture will have, they are taking more of a risk than someone who is willing to wait to lease a pasture after they know what the pasture is capable of. 

Poisonous plants

Smith advises that lessees of grazing pastures need to be leery and on the lookout for poisonous plants that may potentially grow in the pasture and surrounding area. 

Some of the more common poisonous plants producers should be aware of that grow in Wyoming are locoweed and larkspur. 

“Locoweed is pretty common on the foothill ranges around the state of Wyoming,” comments Smith. “Locoweed probably won’t cause a great deal of damage to cattle that consume it, but they probably won’t gain very well.”

“Horses eating locoweed tend to end up with brain lesions, are then considered ‘locoed’ and are not fit to use after that,” continues Smith. “They become unpredictable, and in the worst case, the horse may die.”

Locoweed is more predominant in pastures mid-summer and is poisonous at all stages of growth and throughout the year. The flowers of locoweed resemble sweet peas, and the blossoms vary in color from blue to purple, yellow or white. 

Larkspur

Larkspur toxicity is a significant cause of cattle poisoning on rangelands, which can result in death. The flower of larkspur varies in color from purple to a dark blue, and the flower petals grow together to form a hollow pocket that looks like a spur at the end of the flower. 

The flower predominately grows in May and June, but on mountain turnouts, it can become prevalent a later in the summer months. 

Extension resources

Smith mentions for producers who are new to an area and want to lease some grazing pasture to go visit their local Extension office. 

“It’s always a good idea if someone is new to the country to go visit with the people who are relatively impartial about what is available out there,” describes Smith. “Extension folks usually have some general ideas about carrying capacity, which could be very useful, and sometimes they have some knowledge about the standard leasing rates for the area.”

“Typically leases go for between $20 to $30 an animal unit per month (AUM),” comments Smith. “It can vary quite a bit though depending on where someone is located to facilities and services that are offered with the property.”

An AUM is a standard measurement for the carrying capacity of a pasture and is the amount of feed that is consumed by one animal unit in a month. An animal unit is generally considered to be one mature, cow with or without an unweaned calf at their side, that consumes approximately 27 pounds of forage per day.

“In general, what producers want to make clear in a lease agreement is what services and facilities are being offered with the lease,” says Smith. “They should focus on making it clear on who’s going to provide the water, fence maintenance and supervision of the animals.”

Leases 

Smith also mentions there are two ways of pricing foraging resources for grazing leases.

One method is to charge a specific amount per animal per month, and the other method is to charge on an amount of gain per animal. 

“Sometimes there is also a clause in a contract about who is going to supply salt or a mineral supplement to the animals,” says Smith. “If it’s during the winter, then there could be some other stipulations about what kind of supplements would be provided.”

Lengths of leases depend on particular situations, but Smith says it’s more common to have seasonal grazing leases. 

Grass availability

“Right now, there are probably a low number of cattle relative to the potential forage supply this summer because we have been in a drought for so long. On the other hand, the price of cattle is really good,” says Smith.

The amount of grass that will be available to livestock this summer will depend on the amount of rain pastures receive in the next two months, predicts Smith. 

“Everybody seems to think it’s going to be a great year for grazing, but I’m here to tell producers that what we get in precipitation in the next two months is what will really determine what the range forages are going to be like,” notes Smith. 

Madeline Robinson is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..