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.