By Kindra Gordon
While January means feeding bales on many cattle operations, John Lee Njos, who ranches with his family in the Badlands near Rhame, N.D., has worked to perfect that system in which his cows and weaned heifer calves bale graze through the winter instead.
With this strategy, Njos says a tractor rarely needs to be started in the winter months. And, in just a few years, bale grazing has already increased health and productivity of his fragile Badlands soils, he says.
"When you figure what you pay for fertilizer versus hay, bale grazing has a pretty high value," he says.
For the Njos family, the bale grazing process starts in the fall when bales – most of which are purchased – are strategically placed on introduced pastures. Bales are placed about 25 to 30 feet apart. They aim to put out enough bales to feed the herd from January through March.
"We don't put out all of our bales for grazing, because we don't want any leftovers out there." They do keep a reserve of bales on hand, so if they are running short, in March and April they can place bales where they want the cattle to graze. Reserve bales are stored in rows facing north and south. Njos says this is done because the snow usually blows that way, and prevents the rows from being drifted over. About April 15 they begin calving.
Electric fencing to separate the bales is also set up in the fall. They aim to have the herd bale graze an area for about three to five days – with access to about 17 to 20 bales for 240 head – before moving on to fresh bales. Njos says a good rule of thumb is to offer about three bales for 200 head per day; thus for five days that would be about 15 bales. If weather is extremely cold, he may add a few bales or roll out a bale of alfalfa to provide extra protein.
Njos prefers to use a light-weight aviation cable that can be electrified, because he's learned that frost takes down the charge in polywire. Njos originally got his cable as "recycled" product from Canada, but says now trade stipulations have made it difficult to get.
Another tip: Njos believes forage quality of the bale makes a difference in utilization. He has found if the energy in bales is 60% total digestible nutrients (TDN), cows will eat most of the bale and not leave much. However, when bales are 50% TDN, the cattle tend to leave more stems, or litter, on the ground. Because that litter can add organic matter to the soil, Njos places the lower quality bales on poorer soils. Since Njos purchases most of his hay, he strives to buy hay based on energy content, and pay accordingly for higher or lower quality hay.
Read more about the Njos ranch in the Dakota Farmer online. Click on the January 2015 issue, then go to pages 4 and 5.