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How Does Bale Grazing Affect Forage Quality And Soil Health?

Seven farmers across Scotland and England are exploring the practice bale grazing for overwintering cattle. Bale grazing involves rolling out bales whilst following a similar paddock management system to mob grazing. This 4 year field lab will gather data on soil, animal health and welfare factors.

Bale grazing involves arranging several hay bales at a time in a paddock for grazing, then moving cattle daily to the next paddock, allowing the previous paddock to recover for the rest of the winter. A more common practice in America, this approach is said to improve soil health and subsequent forage growth due to the trampling of uneaten hay and deposited manure. As an approach to outwintering cattle, this reduces the costs associated with housing cattle on a straw-based system.

Bale grazing is increasing in popularity across the UK (on social media, farm walks and the Pasture for Life forum). Currently, UK literature is lacking on the impact on forage quanity/quality and soil health, but farmers have expressed an interest in being able to quantify their management interventions.
Farmers implementing this system cite motivations relating to cost reductions, soil carbon management and animal health as key motivations, however the underpinning data to support this is lacking. Financial and animal health factors would also be worth considering in more detail.

This field lab aims to support farms to collate data over up to a four-year period to better understand the impacts of bale grazing in the UK, across a range of geographical locations in a UK context.

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As it stands there are currently no published UK based experimental trials to quantify the impact on soil health or forage quantity and quality post bale grazing.

Experiments in Canada undertaken over a four-year period found forage dry matter (DM) yield increased following bale grazing (increasing over time post bale graze) as high as 498% in one site. Furthermore, crude protein (CP) also increased in the years following bale grazing by up to 197% (Omokanye, 2013).

Other research in North America has found that cows in bale grazing systems have improved daily weight gain and body condition scores compared to those fed in a dry lot, meaning that greater animal performance coupled with lower costs could improve profitability of sucker beef production (Undi and Sedivec, 2022).

Milestone: Field lab launched

A trial design has been considered, drawing upon the work of Omokanye (2013).

Soil sampling:
• Three random soil samples to be taken as soon as possible pre bale grazing, sampled at two different depths: 0-15cm and 15-30cm using a 45cm soil auger.
• Samples to be sent for soil nutrient analysis (N, P, K and S), pH and soil organic matter (SOM) and electrical conductivity (EC).
• This is to be repeated post bale grazing in August 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026.

Forage Sampling:
• To mimic a 0-year bale grazing assessment, farms will need to fence off/protect up to three 1m2 area in field to take a grass sample in August 2023.
• In August 2023 forage DM yield will be measured in three random 1m2 quadrats in the green areas where bale grazing was carried out in the winter of 2022-23. Forage sample protocols will be shared in summer 2023.

Soil Health Tests:
The following soil assessments to be undertaken pre and post bale grazing, in autumn and spring each year (click each one for instructions).
• VESS Assessment
• Earthworm count
• % Bare Earth
• Water infiltration
• Field Photographs – photographs to be taken in spring, summer and autumn.

These can be logged using Soilmentor, or using farms’ own recording software.

Farmers will take samples and submit for analysis. All farms involved in the field lab have committed to taking samples and engaging in the project. Sampling protocols have been shared with project farms to ensure they understand requirements.

Soil and forage analysis will be undertaken by NRM.

Data will be collated by Pasture for Life and will be analysed by Research Assistant.

The project will also have support from Dr Hannah Davies at Newcastle University, and will be reviewed by the Pasture for Life Research Group, which consists of farmers, scientists and researchers.

Milestone: Field lab launched

The seven participating farms cover a range of farm types and sizes, including beef only but also mixed. Some are certified organic, and the group also includes Pasture for Life certified businesses. All are Pasture for Life members. The farms are located in both upland and lowland areas, across England and Scotland - from Aberdeenshire to Worcestershire.

The group is open to other farmers joining in future years, particularly in Southeast England and Wales.

Nikki Yoxall (coordinator) is Head of Research at Pasture for Life and has a MSc Sustainable Food and Natural Resources.

Dr Hannah Davis (researcher) is a lecturer in ruminant nutrition and pasture management, with a keen interest in agroecological farming systems. She is Degree Programme Director for the agricultural Master's programmes and her research focus is pasture-based ruminant agricultural production systems, examining how dairy management practices (for example, grazing strategy) impacts milk nutritional quality, animal health, welfare and the environment.

Milestone: Field lab launched

Field lab launched

Group Coordinator

A portrait of Nikki Yoxall.
Nikki Yoxall

NE Scotland

Nikki is an educator and first generation farmer based in NE Scotland, where she and her husband run Grampian Graziers – working with local land owners to graze cattle for ecological and biodiversity benefit, whilst selling 100% pasture and tree fed beef to the local community.

She is currently undertaking an PhD in Agroecological Transitions, and has interests in Holistic Management, agroforestry, native breed cattle and connecting folk with their food. She works with the Pasture for Life to support the links between academic research and knowledge exchange and farmers and members.

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