When bale grazing your cattle, carefully consider bale placement. Bales congregate cattle and, if bales aren’t sited properly, the nutrients from manure may leave your farm and enter the local water supply. In a cold climate region like Saskatchewan, this practice may lead to significant water quality problems.
What should I know about winter bale grazing in the prairies?
When the ground is frozen in winter, nutrients from manure don’t readily seep into soils. Instead, nutrients are retained in snow and can wash away in spring. The result: nutrients fertilize local lakes and wetlands instead of crops, creating toxic algae blooms that affect Lake Winnipeg and countless other prairie lakes. By changing your winter grazing practices, you can retain nutrients on your land and protect regional water quality.
What changes should I consider?
Carefully consider the site: If possible, keep bales away from areas that flow into waterways during spring snowmelt. Areas with light-textured soils may also have higher risk of nutrients moving into the groundwater, and should be avoided. If you can retain runoff on your property, you prevent nutrients from contaminating nearby streams. If all your land drains into waterways, a water retention structure or holding pond could be used to prevent nutrient runoff. Remember: the most convenient location to drop bales isn’t always the best location to prevent nutrient runoff. For other site selection considerations, visit Saskatchewan’s bale grazing website.
Be conscious of your stocking density: Be aware of the nutrients you are applying when bale grazing. Remember that bales should be fully consumed to minimize wastage (through trampling and defecating) and to minimize nutrient loss (leftover feed means unused nutrients). Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s nutrient loading calculator allows you to see the impact of decisions like number of bales, number of cattle, number of days grazed, etc. Click here to download the nutrient loading calculator and find a system that lowers nutrients while meeting your needs.
Rotate your bale locations year-to-year: The benefit of bale grazing is dispersing nutrients in the form of manure. However, when the same locations are used every year, these nutrients will accumulate. Crops can only absorb a limited amount of nutrients, meaning at a certain point high nutrient levels stop benefiting crops and start threatening water quality. Rotating the grazed area from year to year, even within the same field, prevents nutrients from accumulating. Even if your bale grazing site doesn’t usually drain into waterways, it might during an extreme event and some of the accumulated nutrients will be transported in runoff.
Avoid baling in areas that collect snow: Blowing snow collects in areas with crop stubble. The taller the plants, the more snow they can trap. Consider placing winter bales in areas where forages or crops have been cut close to the ground — where snow volume will be lowest — to minimize nutrient runoff in spring snowmelt.
Conduct soil tests: Soil testing can help determine if a location is right for winter bale grazing by telling you the current nutrient build-up on your land. This information can help you decide where to locate winter bales as well as determine how much fertilizer (if any) you need to apply in spring. Want to know how your grazing regime affects nutrient build-up? Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada produced a nutrient loading calculator that factors in feed and cow management to determine nutrients added to the field. Click here to download the nutrient loading calculator.
Bale grazing is a convenient method of feeding cattle and dispersing manure across your fields, but in winter those valuable nutrients may be retained in snow and not soil. If nutrients aren’t fertilizing your fields, they’re degrading regional water quality. Applying the strategies above to keep nutrients on your fields will benefit your crops and soil, as well as the environmental health of your region.
Baulch, H., Elliott, J., Cordeiro, M., Flaten, D., Lobb, D., & Wilson, H. (2019). Soil and water management practices: Opportunities to mitigate nutrient losses to surface waters in the Northern Great Plains. Environmental Reviews, 27(4), 447-477.
Chen, G., Elliott, J., Lobb, D., Flaten, D., Braul, L., & Wilson, H. (2017). Changes in runoff chemistry and soil fertility after multiple years of cattle winter bale feeding on annual cropland on the Canadian prairies. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 240, 1.
Li, S., Elliott, J., Tiessen, K., Yarotski, J., Lobb, D., & Flaten, D. (2011). The Effects of Multiple Beneficial Management Practices on Hydrology and Nutrient Losses in a Small Watershed in the Canadian Prairies. Journal of Environmental Quality, 40(5), 1627-1642.