Well it's almost that time again. That time of year when you must ride atop your tractor and feed hay to the cowherd. A time when everything is frozen except for the muddy pasture you're driving on. Well perhaps there's a way for you to leave the cold tractor in the shed and still feed the cowherd in a fraction of the time.

The University of Missouri Forage Systems Research Center (FSRC) near Linneus, Mo., has been using a spaced bale hay feeding system for the last several years. It is accomplished by setting bales of hay on 20-foot centers in the corner of a pasture, then using step in posts and a real of polytape to create a temporary fence around the bale yard. The fence is moved every few days providing access to a fresh supply of hay.

At the FSRC, cows are fed 1000-pound bales. One bale will provide 12 to 15 cows two to three days of feed. Minimizing the time required to consume one bale is critical to reduce the mud and pasture trampling around the bale ring. In wet conditions, if cows are there for longer than two or three days, the mud becomes deep and pasture damage is greater. Below are several advantages to such a system.

  • Less mud to fight
    In a wet winter, the hay is already in the pasture, there is no need to plow through the mud to get hay out to cattle. Because you are moving the hay feeding area every few days, the mud around the bale ring is not nearly as deep. Cattle are hoof deep in mud instead of hock deep in mud. It also helps to limit the problem of calves being trampled in the mud in the hay feeding area.

  • Reduced labor and equipment wear and tear
    The amount of time it takes to feed hay each day is minimized. Three or four bales of hay can be easily fed in a matter of minutes. By moving the temporary fence back and rolling the bale rings over the next few bales, you have fed hay. If bales are set immediately after they are baled, they are only handled one time. Even if bales are set once a month, it can be done when the weather cooperates.

  • Improve pasture fertility
    Pasture fertility can be improved by distributing nutrients to an area with low soil fertility. Much of the nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the hay pass through the animals and is deposited on the ground in manure. The pasture plants better utilize the nutrients in the manure if hay is deposited in an area of the pasture with low soil fertility. If intensive soil sampling has been done, select a hay feeding location with low fertility. If intensive sampling has not been done, select an area that is not near shade, water or where feeding has occurred previously. These areas will already be high in nutrients due to the large volume of manure that has been deposited in the past.

  • Some considerations
    There are two challenges that must be weighed into the decision to feed hay in this manner. Probably the biggest concern when using this system is that it leaves the pasture somewhat scarred. Cattle tracks and hay residual will be noticeable or a few years and produce some weeds. Full recovery occurs after three years and research sites at FSRC do not appear any different from the rest of the pasture after that time. Another challenge is hay spoilage. Hay that is predominately grass-based will have a minimum amount of spoilage when left outside as long as the twine is spaced no more than three inches apart. This hay can be set in the pasture as soon as it is baled. Alfalfa or other hay with a lot of legumes such as clover, lespedeza or birdsfoot trefoil, will not shed water as well as the slick grass hay and should probably be stored under roof if possible. This hay can be set out in the pasture once the weather is cool, when spoilage will be minimized.