Kentucky is renowned for its picturesque landscapes adorned with lush pastures, making it an ideal state for cattle producers. However, winter cattle feeding has long been a laborious, messy, and inefficient process. Thankfully, a groundbreaking project led by Greg Halich, an agricultural economics professor at the University of Kentucky, is transforming winter feeding for cattle producers in the state, thanks to a $2.3 million USDA Natural Resources Conservation Innovation Grant.
Halich is spearheading a multi-year bale-grazing study spanning six states, and the initial results have already shown promising benefits for Kentucky's cattle producers. Traditionally, hay is fed to livestock in sacrifice lots, feeding pads, or feeding barns, but these methods have proven to be ineffective and exhausting for farmers. Bale grazing offers a refreshing alternative by placing bales directly on the pasture and implementing a planned, controlled feeding approach. Essentially, it mimics rotational grazing with round bales.
When hay is fed to livestock, most of the nutrients pass through the animals and can serve as fertilizer for future forage growth. The key lies in how and where the hay is fed. Halich emphasizes the importance of returning or recycling nutrients to areas on the farm that can effectively utilize them. Losing nutrients prematurely or spreading them across areas with already high fertility diminishes their potential benefits. Thus, feeding hay must be approached as a comprehensive nutrient flow, exporting nutrients from hayfields and importing them to the designated feeding areas.
In the study, producers strategically place bales on the pasture and use temporary electric fencing to control cattle access to the bales. Each time the fence is moved, the cattle are directed to a fresh area with new bales and potential stockpiled pasture, usually situated 30-90 feet away from the previous fenced area. This process is repeated every one to seven days, allowing farmers to minimize tractor usage for months while ensuring nutrients are deposited where they are needed. Another advantage is that cattle avoid the common problem of muddy conditions associated with conventional hay feeding.
The reduction of mud-related issues is significant for cattle. Mud forces them to expend more energy as they navigate the pasture, and it also clings to their hide, reducing insulation capabilities. These challenges increase the animal's energy requirements precisely when it's crucial to maintain optimal body condition.
The study commenced during the past winter, with the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment specialists collaborating with local farmers like Mike Wilson in Anderson County and Josh and Melissa Ballard in Shelby County. Halich's team will collect soil and forage data for three years after each pasture has been subjected to bale grazing.
Josh and Melissa Ballard had already been practicing bale grazing before participating in the project. They firmly believe it is an excellent tool for enhancing soil biology, pasture fertility, and mud control.
"Bale grazing is the only tool I have found that can turn a worn-out, broom sedge-filled pasture around without spending a dime," Josh said. "We spent three to four hours setting hay out in December and didn't need a tractor the rest of the winter. It does something to make the grass better; even the cows know."
Initially hesitant about adopting bale grazing, Mike Wilson changed his mind after observing its success on another Kentucky farm. His experience supports Halich's belief that seeing is believing.
Apart from benefiting individual farmers, the project also has broader implications. The results will assist officials from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in revising their protocols and wintering recommendations for beef cattle. Furthermore, a network of demonstration farms showcasing bale grazing will provide valuable opportunities for Kentucky cattle farmers to witness the practice in action, complete with real-world constraints and results.