Producer Spotlight: Blue Slate Ranch — Bale Grazing
Bale grazing is a method of feeding livestock during the winter. Bales of hay are placed strategically across a pasture or paddock rather than in one location.
Author: Leslie Michel, Soil Scientist at the Washington Department of Agriculture. Quotes from Michele Masuen and Mitch Walker from Blue Slate Ranch
North of Newport, WA sits Blue Slate Ranch. Owners Michele Masuen and Mitch Walker raise grass-fed beef, pastured pork, chicken, turkeys, and quarter horses. Michele studied range management and agriculture in college, while Mitch studied zoology, wildlife, as well as a bit of veterinary medicine at UC Davis in California. Drawn by their love of agriculture and the outdoors, Mitch and Michele started Blue Slate Ranch 18 years ago.
While soil health and sustainable farming practices have always been important, in the past five years, they have focused more on regenerative agriculture.
Mitch and Michele work closely with the Pend Oreille Conservation District, most recently installing a manure waste/animal composting facility and taking soil health tests with WSDA’s State of the Soils Assessment. While Blue Slate Ranch implements many different conservation practices to improve soil health, bale grazing has become instrumental in improving their pastures.
Hear from Michele and Mitch in this short video
"We would rather spend the money on bale grazing and getting good pasture than we would spend on straight hay"
Bale grazing is a method of feeding livestock during the winter. Bales of hay are placed strategically across a pasture or paddock rather than in one location. Bale grazing is one way for farmers to improve soil fertility, increase soil organic matter, and reduce compaction. Skeptics of bale grazing often note wastage—feed left on the ground to build soil health rather than being consumed by livestock—as a barrier to implementation. At Blue Slate Ranch, bale grazing has improved the pasture stand yield, increased drought tolerance, and reduced weeds—for Mitch and Michele, wastage isn’t waste.
“We have always taken round bales and placed them around pastures and just move them and the cattle through, making sure that the entire pasture was grazed and received the benefits of bale grazing.” While they’ve been using bale grazing for approximately 15 years, they became more strategic and intentional three years ago. They use round feeders and bales, moving the feeders every 1-2 days. In a typical year they’re able to cover 75-90% of a pasture.
During the summer, their cows are on nearby rangeland, every October they bring them to their home pasture for the winter, sending them back to range in May. Each year they spend five to six months bale grazing their home pastures. The exact timing varies from year to year, depending on weather and pasture conditions.
Why was it important to you and your farm to begin using bale grazing?
The Bonner Silt Loam soils at Blue Slate Ranch tend to be droughty and low in organic matter, so improving soil moisture holding capacity became critical to healthy pastures. “In general, the soil moisture holding capacity of these soils has not been very good and so grew a lot of weeds and not a lot of good grass. And we needed to get that paradigm changed around to where we could grow some good pastures to graze our cattle.”
“We’d much rather spend the money on bale grazing and getting good pasture than we would spend it on straight hay. [There are] a lot of benefits to us for doing that. That was the main thing, to get soil moisture holding capacity up to carry a lot more poundage of grass.”
Weeds were another issue. Before bale grazing, the pastures had very little grass and were filled with knapweed and St. John wort, and trees were starting to encroach on the pastures. “Our weed problem after the first two years [of bale grazing] almost evaporated. I would not have thought it, but I guess the competition shut them down.”
What were the biggest challenges to transitioning to bale grazing in the beginning?
The biggest challenge for Mitch and Michele was just getting over the mindset of wasting their feed and how much waste they were leaving on the ground. That first couple of years was a bit of a guess. "[But] once we started seeing the benefits and it's fairly significant benefits that we've seen here, the pastures that we've intensively bale grazed are producing 2 to 3 times the forage that the ones that we haven't bale grazed yet. So that that easily makes the math pencil out.”
They target 25 to 30% of hay being left behind to feed the soil. Experience has taught them that’s the right amount to see the benefits in the soil. More wastage doesn’t have an exponentially better result, while less doesn’t have the same effect on soil moisture holding capacity and weed control that they’d like to see.
Getting water and electricity out to each pasture has been another challenge at Blue Slate Ranch. Electricity is critical during the winter to keep the troughs from freezing. Over time, they’ve increased the number of pastures with water and electricity.
What have been some of the benefits that you’ve seen?
The biggest benefit has been 2 to 3x growth in forage. “You know, it just, it tells a story. At this point, we haven't overstated or anything. We're just reviving the natural grasses that are already here. We've talked about maybe doing a little over-seeding to get [it] a little thicker, a little more variety. But at this point in time, what you're seeing is just the native grass coming back.”
“A big thing [was] when we had the drought a couple of years ago, you could see the bale grazed area had green grass, and the one [not bale grazed] was only a couple of inches and brown. So that was a huge change."
“But we've also seen improvement in the soil—the soil biology. We see a lot more worms and so forth growing in our soil. So, I think it's a mixture of all those, probably a whole bunch more.”
What would you tell other growers interested in experimenting with these practices?
“If you’re growing livestock, you're looking for pasture of forage—It’s really kind of a no-brainer, in my opinion. You’ve got to have patience and you need to have some faith that it's going to pay off down the road. But I think that patience and faith will be more than paid for it, more than worth it long term.”
Mitch also recommends a soil assessment to get a baseline. Then you can track changes over the long term. You should also think about what your long-term goal is for your pasture and operation. You can work with your local conservation district to get a soil assessment, just like Michele and Mitch worked with Pend Oreille. Find your local conservation district on the Washington State Conservation Commission website.
Michele and Mitch have agreed to help others interested in bale grazing. To connect with them, email WaSHI@agr.wa.gov.
Learn more about bale grazing with these resources:
This article was published by the Washington Soil Health Initiative. For more information, visit https://wasoilhealth.org. To have these posts delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to the WaSHI newsletter. To find a soil science technical service provider, visit the Washington State University Extension website or the Washington State Conservation District website.