Winter ‘bale-grazing’ offers freedom at Dakota Winds Ranch
A South Dakota cattle rancher and his veterinarian wife figure out a bale grazing plan that allows minimal winter care.
WHITE, South Dakota — Meet John and Sharon Leiferman: cow-calf producers in their mid-60s, blazing a snow trail toward their 70s, innovating with a low-labor technique called “bale grazing.”
In 1991, Sharon, a veterinarian in a solo practice, met John when he hired her to assist in a problem calf birth. The two married in 1997, raised a son, and ranched. Now, their goal is to simplify their operation and continue until Matthew, 25, gets out of the U.S. Marines, and can come alongside.
“We’re planning ahead,” Sharon said, walking in a January pasture tour, sprightly making her way along cattle trails in the snow.
Their Dakota Winds Ranch today is a 3,500-acre operation in the Buffalo Ridge. It includes 1,000 acres of farm and hay ground, plus 2,500 acres of pasture. Over the past two decades they’ve worked in the summer to put in about 30,000 feet of pipeline into pastures to provide rural water. They’ve beefed up perimeter fences and installed cross-fences.
The Leifermans’ cow herd once was up to 500 cows, but they’ve down-sized to 270.
In 2003, the Leifermans started experimenting with “winter grazing.”
In 2007, they stumbled into a technique others have called “bale grazing” — placing bales in a field pasture that cows use for both shelter and feed. They’d been using the bale grazing technique for several years when they saw an article in Beef magazine about several producers in Saskatchewan who had been using the technique for many years.
“I said, ‘John, this thing has a name,’” Sharon recalled. “We thought we had discovered it ourselves.”
They’ve grown so confident with the practice that they’re now comfortable — with a little help at home with the feeding — to take three or four one- to two-week trips every winter.
“When we first got married, we were working seven days a week,” John said. “Now, we can — with the bale grazing — we plan to go to Hawaii for 10 days.”
What a change
In the “old days,” Leiferman, originally in a partnership with his father and brother, kept their herd over winter in one location near a stockpile of hay. The Leifermans fed hay daily. The hay and manure “wastage” was concentrated in that single pasture. Every spring they’d haul away a “mountain of manure” — 250 loads a year.
Under the new “winter grazing” regimen, the Leifermans put groups of cows in selected locations that had shelter from wind and had a type of water source, such as a spring or a flowing stream.
“We would try to under-graze those pastures or not graze them at all in the summer, and put the cows out there for grazing in the winter,” Sharon said. The cows would dig down through a foot of snow, they said, if they knew grass was there.
That was working along until one winter they got a foot of snow overnight. Concerned the cows could run out of feed, John loaded up bales on some plank trailers and delivered them to the pasture. They thought the cows might stop their grazing and go right to the bales, but no. They kept grazing until they couldn’t get to the grass.
It was a revelation.
Today, the Leifermans plot out where their cows will spend the winter. When the bales are made, John hauls them right to where he’s going to winter-graze. They are spread 30 to 40 feet apart, so the footprint of hay residue and manure won’t overlap.
“I don’t like to handle bales twice. I have at least 1,000 bales, sitting out in different pastures, he said. Four groups of cattle have their own pasture.
The Leifermans acknowledge they’re fortunate that there are springs at the bottom of the hills and the cattle know how to find them. If the road is blocked, he may not be able to walk among them, but he checks on them visually from the road during that time. “They’ve got the shelter food and water. They can rough it on their own.”
The cows feed “free-choice,” as they say. In some cases, if the cattle consume 30 bales in one pasture, they can move them next-door to another 30 bales, served with the same water supply, the same shelter.
In the past they put up alfalfa bales, but had problems with pocket gophers. Now they only put up prairie hay.
“We sowed a lot of marginal farm ground to five native species — switchgrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, gamagrass, Indiangrass," he said.
The Leifermans typically just walk out in the pasture to check how things are going. They used to have a snowmobile, but seldom used it. The Leifermans purchase 100-gallon water tanks at a local farm supply store. John puts out enough mineral and protein mixed with salt to last the whole winter, placed in a 100-gallon water tanks.
But the Leifermans learned that the cows would chew into as few bales as possible.
“Once they started a bale, the hay inside of the wrap got looser and looser, and it was easier and easier to eat on a bale that was already started. So they had no incentive to start on a new bale until they had thoroughly eaten an old one,” Sharon said. “There was a self-rationing approach to it.
“I might have 100 bales sitting on one hillside. It’s a lot of work (for the cows) to tear a bale open. Those cows work and work and work, and once they get (a bale) open, they’ll just devour it. There is very little wastage there.”
Any waste is less than the cost of driving a tractor to plow a road open.
Gains without pains
The Leifermans have developed a herd that is gentle, but also does well on the winter- and bale-grazing program. Cows that don’t tolerate this type of feeding system through the winter cull themselves, Sharon said. Some might might come in thin, or don’t get bred-back that summer.
The Leifermans run the cows through a chute about four times a year, including just prior to calving in April to mid-May. Each time, they weigh and give the cows a body condition score (standardized, 1-9). The want the cows to score a 5 or 6 most of the year. They freeze-brand individual ID’s and clip the hair around the brand in April to mid-May, just prior to calving so that they don’t need ear tags that can be torn out by the bale wrap.
The Leifermans used to hire neighbors to custom-feed calves. Those neighbors were good at it, and used silage-based rations, but they wanted to retire. They took on the calf-feeding task themselves. They now sell off all of the steer calves at weaning and feed only replacement heifers.
Besides feeding bale hay, the chores involve feeding protein pellets and shell corn into steel feed bunks. They feed the hay bales in a succession of pens, about two weeks of time. When the calves are finished, they move on to the next bales in another pen.
“It’s been a great cost savings for us, not having to run that tractor every single day,” Sharon said.
They split the calves up into three size groups (“bigs, middles and littles”). The heifers gain about 1.5 pounds a day through the winter. Under the bale feeding regimen, they’ve seen a “dramatic reduction” in pneumonia problems.
“It’s not uncommon for us to be able to wean 100 head and treat less than five for pneumonia,” she said.
John said the bale system seems primitive, even “backward” to those who have invested in machines and bunks. It’s not for everybody. It requires wind protection and water.
“I think a small producer could implement this. It saves money, not having to run that tractor every single day,” he said, adding, “I think I can feed a cow for less than a dollar a day — just grazing.”
What: They bale-graze cattle throughout the winter, allowing them an easier season with fewer chores and more opportunities to travel.
Where: 48562 206th Street, White, South Dakota