Free Fertilizer? Hay Feeding!

– Dr. Jeff Lehmkuhler, Associate Extension Professor, Beef Extension Specialist, University of Kentucky

Pasture fields seem to be overlooked with regards to applying management. Many folks will soil test hay fields and apply some level of fertility, though it may be less than the soil test recommends. This seems to be more evident when profit margins are tight. Corn experts have recommended fertility rates in relation to economic returns rather than maximal yields. In other words, the rate of fertilizer added is based on both soil test recommendations and expected improvement in yield. This concept takes into account the cost:benefit relationship that exists for inputs and outputs. Should beef producers not have this same mindset when it comes to hay production and take this a step further toward pasture productivity?

Low feeder cattle price has reduced the profit margins increasing the importance to enhance forage production on the farm. With the understanding that tighter profit margins may lead to lower inputs devoted towards hay and pasture acres, is there another option?

A ton of hay that contains 2.5% potassium and 0.25% phosphorus would contain 50 lbs of actual potassium and 5 lbs of phosphorus. A ton of hay would then have the equivalent of 60 lbs of K2O and roughly 11 lbs of P2O5. Consider how many tons of hay you feed through the winter and the potential fertilizer value in this hay. Only a small amount of the potassium and phosphorus consumed by a cow is retained with most being excreted. Applying management to hay feeding areas can provide a source of nutrients that can improve soil fertility and forage production.

Applying management that distributes the animal pressure during the hay feeding period can reduce mud and spread these nutrients. This can be achieved through unrolling hay on the ground, using a hay processor and/or having bales offered in different areas of the field. The goal is to limit the time spent in any one area. Each of these options have advantages and disadvantages.

Bale grazing is gaining popularity in some regions. Bale grazing is simply the process of setting bales in a field area and controlling access to the bales. Access is often controlled using temporary electric fence. Bales would be set in the field prior to the expected hay feeding period. Bales are often placed on approximately 40’ x 40’ centers. The amount of hay consumed for the herd is estimated such that the cows will clean the hay up in 3-5 days. The number of bales offered will depend on bale weight and cow size, but a general rule of thumb is one bale (assuming 1,000 lb) per every 10 cows. If the herd is 30 cows, one would provide access to just 3 bales. These bales would be expected to be consumed in 3-4 days. Once the bales are consumed, the electric fence is moved to provide access to the next bales. Managing to reduce the amount of hay left behind is important. Protecting hay to minimize rot and waiting to give new bales to make cows clean up hay is key.

Research conducted in Virginia suggested that soil compaction, forage production, and the percentage of weeds in the field were not different in fields where hay was fed compared to fields that did not have hay fed.  They did indicate that the areas around the hay feeding areas were damaged or denuded with these areas being approximately 5% of the field area. Soil phosphorus and potassium levels as well as the percentage of clover were increased in the fields with hay feeding. Canadian researchers found forage production was 3.3-4.7 times greater in fields in which hay feeding was conducted. Their research revealed significant increases in soil fertility in areas with hay feeding. Areas where bale grazing seems to be gaining traction is in areas that ground remains frozen during the winter. Another region it is gaining traction is in areas with sandy soils that are well drained. How will this fit our mud conducive climate?

In Adair county, one farmer has embraced this concept to improve pasture areas. It is a learning process and we are all learning from his management. Last winter, bales were placed close together. Significant soil disturbance occurred but the areas were seeded to a summer annual. Great production of these annuals was observed as the rapidly growing forage used the nutrients left behind. The areas were reseeded to novel fescue in the fall as part of the renovation plan. He reduced the amount of hay fed to about 2/3 bale for his 26 cows. He is using bale grazing again this winter. He has sold his manure spreader. Soil K and P levels were increased about three-fold in the hay feeding areas. An interesting observation is that no broomsedge was seen growing in the hay feeding areas while it was in the rest of the field.

Is bale grazing the solution? I am not convinced yet, but it has opened my mind to alternatives. Hay feeding certainly has the potential to be a source of fertility that I would argue many producers are wasting.  Unrolling hay can be another option. Using a single strand of electrified poly-wire down the middle will lower loss from bedding and defecation.

Distributing hay feeding areas in pasture fields will improve animal distribution and manure deposits. Forage production may be improved as a result particularly for pasture fields that have not received fertilizer in years. We’ll continue to look at this in the future to see how bale grazing will fit our climate.