When the Grass Isn’t Growing, What Do Grass Fed Cattle Eat?

We often emphasize the importance of “grass fed and grass finished” as a standard for feeding our beef cattle. Grass fed cattle are eating the kind of food that suits them best, and this is a very different diet compared to conventional grain fed cattle. And I believe that the grass fed beef from those cattle makes superior food for us as well.

But what about the winter? What’s left to eat during the cold months when all the summer’s grass lies flattened by ice and snow, when the ground is frozen rock solid? Let’s talk about baleage.


Hi, I’m Dave, your farmer from Wrong Direction Farm.
Today I am out getting ready to feed the cattle. I’m about to break into a new row of baleage. This long tube you see behind me, it’s got bales of what we call baleage. It’s like hay except, instead of being totally dried down, we cut it in, this was cut in June, really at the peak of the grass season. We just let it wilt in the sun for like a half a day, and then we roll it up into tightly compacted bales. And we let it ferment inside these wrappers and it really preserves the quality of the grass and in a better way than hay does. Hay, because it’s dried in the sun, allows a lot of the vitamins to degrade. But this method of fermenting the bales keeps it in top quality and, you know, like with fermented foods for humans, there’s actually a few vitamins that are enhanced by the bacterial action. So it’s really top quality feed for the cattle and they love it. Today, it’s well, it’s gotten up to two degrees. It was down to negative eight last night, so not the coldest it gets but it’s pretty cold today. And I’ve got my microphone on here so you don’t pick up so much of the wind, but there’s a pretty stiff wind going on right now too. It’s chilly, so obviously we’re not growing any grass this time of year and we have grass-fed cattle, so this is how we feed them grass during the winter.
All right, let’s go after the bales.
We’ll cut the bale wrap off.
Underneath the bale wrap is this net wrap. This just holds it together until we get it out to the cattle. This is the plastic. I’ll take and I’ll roll it up and I’ll save it for recycling.
So for the winter I store all my old bale wrap in here. Then we’ll take it to the recycling center in the spring.

At Wrong Direction Farm, we feed our cattle bales of spring grass all winter long. Similar to hay, this is called baleage. During the flush of spring growth we have more grass than our cattle can eat, so we mow it and bale it up for winter.

Winter Feeding Options

In some of the drier parts of the country, cattle can directly graze the grass year-round. There are some grasses, like fescues and native prairie grasses that, surprisingly, can be more palatable to the cattle during the dormant season. In midwestern and western states, where the rainfall amounts are lower and the grasses tend to stand up above any snow, many herds of cattle can be grazed through the winter with very little need for stored forage.

The Northeast, especially for those of us in the I-90 corridor or points northward, is a very different environment. Our soil types and our wet summers don’t favor varieties of grass that provide good winter grazing. Our winters often involve plastering layers of ice that flatten our grasses to the ground. The one grass on our farm that can stand up to a fair amount of winter precipitation is called Reed Canarygrass. And while it is a great summer forage, it becomes gray-brown and loses all its nutrition after the frosts.

When I first started farming, the loudest voices in the grass fed industry came from the Western and Southern states. They talked about how it was possible to graze cattle year round on standing grass, or failing that, to feed dry hay that was left outside all winter. I tried those things, but I came to realize that our context is quite different. I could learn from other cattle farmers and ranchers, but I couldn’t blindly imitate them.

In Upstate New York we need much better winter grass to feed to our cattle if we expect to grow good, strong steers and heifers without any supplementation. What works in the Dakotas, or Missouri, or Georgia, doesn’t have to work here. The grasses are different, the weather is different. It makes sense that each area’s agriculture should be reflective of its distinctive seasonal patterns.

The Difference between Hay and Baleage

So let’s look at what we feed during the winter.

We’re feeding what has come to be known as “baleage” (or sometimes spelled “balage”), a portmanteau of bales and ensilage. Ensilage refers to the process of controlled fermentation of forage for livestock feed. In earlier forms of agriculture, this was accomplished in a laborious process of burying harvested plants or crops in earth-covered pits, trenches, or in older usage “clamps”. But as a general term it can be used for any situation where plant matter is compacted together and stored for a long time in a low-oxygen environment to encourage fermentation.

When we are making either hay or baleage, the process begins the same way. We mow a field and let the grass begin to dry down. For hay, we need to get the moisture levels down very quickly, so it usually is raked to fluff it and to expose new surfaces for dehydration. If you’ve ever placed your hand in a pile of fresh grass clippings, you’ll recognize how much heat they can generate. We don’t want hay bales to sit with wet, hot cores, otherwise they can mold or rot in place or, in some situations, actually self-combust and burn down an entire hay storage building. Hay is dehydrated grass.

But with baleage, we change things up to take advantage of the water and the microorganisms in the grass. Our goal is to create a controlled fermentation environment. So we only dry the grass enough to wilt it, just enough that our bales aren’t dripping wet. Then we wrap the hay in an airtight membrane, and we let that ferment for at least six months.

Nutrition in Stored Grass

As with traditional fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchee, and aged salami, we’re mainly relying on the work of Lactobacillus strains to do the fermentation. There are companies that sell inoculant cultures to be sprayed onto grasses as they are baled, but we find that the naturally occurring bacteria in our fields are sufficient to consistently create a good lactic ferment.

The advantage of feeding baleage over dry hay bales comes from the enhanced nutrition in the feed. The sun-drying process in haymaking drops plant carbohydrate levels, degrades some of the proteins, oxidizes the fats, and destroys vitamins. But fermentation helps to hold most of the nutrient levels near their original values, while boosting a few of the antioxidant vitamins in the process. As a result of switching from hay to baleage, we’ve seen our steers and heifers growing more over the winter. With dry hay, their weights would often stand still or decline slightly.

I suppose a few balancing words are in order. This isn’t meant to indicate that hay is categorically bad or that baleage is categorically good. Much depends on the grass itself, the weather at the time of harvest, and the storage conditions. I’m sure one could find samples of hay that would test better than poorly made baleage. But on balance, I find that I consistently get better results with the baleage I’m using than with the hay I used to feed our herd.

Good Grass All Year

Given a choice of seasons, of course I prefer the green months, when we’re moving the cattle to fresh, living grass every day. There’s nothing to match the joy in watching them stretching out their tongues and pulling in large clumps of grass, just mowing their way across a field in June. In midwinter, when I look at summertime pictures of the farm it is almost hard to believe that we live in that same place.

But there’s also something special on these cold winter days, when I unwrap a bale and feed the cattle, watching them jostle each other to be the first one to get a good mouthful of grass. Each bale is a time capsule, preserving the grass from a particular sunny, warm afternoon.

6 thoughts on “When the Grass Isn’t Growing, What Do Grass Fed Cattle Eat?”

  1. Interesting video. More and more people are switching to baleage since it is less dependent of dry weather, but is it good for the cattle? They sure like more than hay, but they like grain even more than the baleage, so we cannot trust their taste preferences.

    Cattle didn’t eat fermented food for more than a few hundred years, and while fermented food is supposedly good for monogastric animals, it may or may not be good for ruminants. For example, ruminants obtain more nutrition from hard to digest protein to easy to digest protein because easy-to-digest protein is gobbled up by the rumen microbiota.

    As far as I could find, silage seems not to alter rumen pH as much as grain does so that is a positive, but I wish there was more known about silage vs hay question. And then, of course, there is a question about all the chemicals that are leaching from the plastic into the baleage (acidity and long storage time might lead to a lot of leaching). It seems like putting up chopped hay into a silo would be a safer and more environmentally friendly option. What kind of scale would one need to justify that kind of an investment?

    1. Hi Kirill,

      It seems to me that a better evolutionary argument could be made for ruminants to eat fermented foods vs monogastrics. Ruminants employ some of the same or similar lactobacillus strains internally, so the feed is quite similar to what happens to feed inside their rumens. Now, I’ll agree that monogastrics also seem to thrive on fermented foods, and I personally prefer a diet with fermented vegetables, but it is hard to imagine what long term selection forces would have to be at work for this to be so.

      Regarding your comments about digestibility, I think actually the more germane topic is about the digestibility of carbohydrates than it is about the digestibility of proteins. Digestible carbohydrates tend to be the more limiting resource in our grasses and in our environment.

      Silage nutrition is pretty well studied at the academic level. And just from my personal observations, I certainly see healthier, hardier steers and heifers, and fewer incidences of disease among cattle eating baleage vs what we experienced with hay. So I’m satisfied that it is a better feed in our situation.

      About silos… This is a tricky question. But for reference, a recent quote I heard was $70,000 to erect a used Harvestore silo (not very big one, but I forget the size) on a concrete pad and install a reconditioned unloader system. New silos can be in the $150 to $200k range. But that’s not the end of the costs. Because you can’t effectively feed loose chopped silage on pastures, you really need to feed that in bunks. And once you are feeding in bunks you need concrete feed lots, lanes, scrapers, etc. Depending on the situation, this setup will often trigger requirements to build manure lagoons, and the thing just keeps growing. In a dairy environment where cows are already spending a lot of the day on concrete and the barnyard infrastructure is in place, maybe this can pencil out. But for grass fed beef, this would never be economical. Some farmers nickname silos tombstones, because once farmers build one, they are never out of debt. They really can be a never-ending debt escalator.

      Like in everything else, I wish there were a really clear and simple way to achieve every one of our goals simultaneously and unambiguously. But we’re always stuck in the real world balancing out all sorts of complex tradeoffs.

      1. Dear Dave , The one thing you didn’t address which does concern me is the leaching of chemicals from the plastic used to wrap the baleage. It is something that concerns me. I know that there may not be a better way at this time but I would love your thoughts on this. My daughter has lupus and we have changed the how we cook and store food to reduce and eliminate metals and other chemicals from our diet. I love everything about the way you run your farm. I’m a new customer. I love your writings and videos. I’m learning so much and it warms my heart to know all about all the hard work, love and care you and your wife put in,to provide the rest of us with such high end food for our families. Thank you.

      2. Hi Linda,

        I wish you and your daughter well in your work to find better ways of cooking and eating. Health problems are what got our family into farming as well, and we know the overwhelming frustration in wondering how we might do something as seemingly simple as putting together a good meal for a loved one without doing them harm.

        I’m glad that you noted “there may not be a better way at this time.” It is always a challenge to choose what is good and practical in any life situation. When we look at chemical leaching, it is hard to know what to choose. Even in something as simple as choosing our household cups and pots and pans. We know that different types of plastics leach chemicals, but so do more durable materials like copper, aluminum, and stainless steel. Glass and ceramics also can leach out undesirable traces of minerals. Even wooden utensils can, depending on what was in the soil the trees grew in. There are enough scary health consequences to so many things to induce choice paralysis. It is a puzzling situation we all face, where we know enough that every possible action we take will bring with it some degree of negative consequences, but we don’t really know the scale to compare the negatives.

        Right now I’m not aware of any data to show what’s happening with leaching inside a wrapped bale. So I can’t point to a study to show the effects.

        I think that the bale environment is much less likely to be a problem than other use cases, such as the plastic water tanks and water lines that we use to distribute water on the farm. Here are the things I see as most noteworthy in asserting that leaching risk is minimal:
        1. Bale wrap is made from low density polyethylene (LDPE), which overall tends to have lower amounts of undesirable chemicals compared to a lot of other plastics. But it is a plastic, and no plastic is perfect.
        2. Baleage is less acidic than traditional silage, so it isn’t going to have as strong an effect on any chemicals.
        3. The wrap is white, so it reflects heat rather than absorbing it, so the bales don’t get overheated and the plastic doesn’t release as many chemicals as hot plastics would.
        4. The surface of the bale is made up of long fibers of grass, and the bale itself is a matrix of grass blades and stalks and there isn’t a lot of free moisture in the bale. So if there is leaching, it is unlikely to be able to transfer very far into the bale. I’d contrast this to a tank full of liquid where any leaching would contaminate the entire volume.

        In any case where I’m stuck wondering about all the possible negatives, I prefer to flip the problem over and try to optimize the positives. Here’s how I do it in this situation: I believe that grass fed meats are at the apex of nutritionally powerful foods and that in our grass-abundant environment they are also some of the most ecologically appropriate food solutions. So starting from those assumptions, I want to know how I can produce the best grass fed beef. And my assertion is that the best grass fed beef comes from cattle that are in the peak of health. And to keep cattle in the peak of health during the grass-dormant season, baleage is the best feed available at present.


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