By Tara Fisher and Gene Surber, Natural Resource Extension Specialist

"This technique involves cutting hay, leaving it in windrows and allowing livestock to graze the windrows during the winter"

Well, spring is here and now is the time to start planning for what you are going to do for next winters’ hay. One consideration might be to use it as swath grazing. Swath grazing is an alternative forage handling method that offers the potential to lower winter feeding costs. This technique involves cutting hay, leaving it in windrows and allowing livestock to graze the windrows during the winter. Ranchers who currently utilize swath grazing are mostly windrowing annual crops such as oat and barley, but perennial hay crops and late-seeded oats or barley have also been successfully used. Swath grazing during all types of weather conditions is possible and has been done during open winters and in snow depths of over two feet.

Advantages to swath grazing are reduced labor requirement, reduced costs of haying and feeding, less concern about weather at haying time, and having to handle manure from feeding areas is eliminated for the time that livestock are grazing swaths. This sounds well and good, but what about the drawbacks, right? Some disadvantages to swath grazing include potential use by wildlife, possible crusting of snow that may require breaking it with a tractor, or extreme weather conditions that could require supplementing or needed protection. To properly take advantage of the opportunities that swath grazing offers is the need to learn how to effectively manage electric fence.

If you are considering swath grazing as another livestock feeding technique on your operation, here are some suggested guidelines:

  • Plant annual forages late in the spring or early summer so they will be in early dough stage for windrowing.
  • Graze perennial forages evenly and fairly heavy in early spring so regrowth is delayed and of higher quality in fall for windrowing.
  • Cut the forage crop in the fall when nights are cooler (late August or September depending on climate).
  • Rake windrows together while hay is still moist (right behind the swather or mower) not allowing the forage to dry out.
  • Windrows should be no more than four feet wide and 2 feet tall, dense windrows are preferable.
  • Cross fence perpendicular to windrows with electric fence to control the time and amounts of forage available to animals.
  • Move the fence every day in order to minimize waste.

For more detailed information on swath grazing, check out the MSU Extension MontGuide titled “Swath/Windrow Grazing: An Alternative Livestock Feeding Technique.”