Mark Anderson is wintering his dairy cows on bales of hay and pasture.

In line with a 'no bare soil' principle, Mark wanted to get away from muddy boots and keep his cows out of the mud so last winter he trialled a portion of his dairy herd on pasture and bales of hay.

This winter he is going full hog, wintering his dairy herd on pasture and bales.

Mark dried off his cows last week.   I asked Mark some questions about his project and his answers are below:

How did the preliminary project go last year and what did it involve?

"When we made the decision to implement a no-bare soil policy in line with the 5 soil health principles, we planted very diverse species crops which worked very well, increasing biodiversity above and below ground and producing nutritious forage for the animals. This worked well and kept the soil covered which was our main aim. The only downside was as we moved on and away from synthetic fertilisers the crop yield dropped. This is expected, until the soil biology begins thriving again. With less yield to get us through winter we trialled bale grazing. I researched it thoroughly, mainly from North American farmers, and one farmer in particular, Steve Kenyon. 

We purchased and imported fertility in the form of hay bales. The truck delivered to the paddocks of choice where we arranged them in a checkerboard pattern and from winter onwards, we graze the stockpiled grass and hay bales on 3-day breaks. We graze approximately 110 cows on a 4-4500m2 area for three days, in this area they have access to approximately 13 bales of hay with no hay racks and portable water. The animals are fenced front and back on their break, so we gain even distribution of dung, new seed from the bales and urine.

Cows are offered 14 kgs/dm/cow/day, 3-4kgs of grass and 10 kgs of hay, minus approximately 30% of the hay is 'waste' on the ground. This is the key. The 'waste' will grow more than 2-3 times the amount of grass for the following years to come, the extra water holding capacity from the mulch or litter is carbon and food for the soil biology. 

Carbon is our currency, and water is our most needed nutrient, it really is a soil health accelerator.  Worms are abundant, soils are reseeded & fertilised from the bales and ready to gaze again later spring. 

The first two grazing's in late spring/post winter are necessary for the hay litter to gain that hoof action over them to help loosen and stimulate the breakdown and seed germination from any thicker litter patches.

Through this system we cut out the harmful and costly tillage passes of conventional cropping and the chemicals involved in that system saving us thousands while building our soil biome. 

As we move towards a lower carbon economy and towards ecological outcomes this system fits well. "

What portion of your operation is under bale & pasture grazing this year?  

"The farm is 580ha total and this year we are bale grazing 650 cows on approximately 55-65ha area. This is our first year with full perennial pasture and diverse winter crop coverage and no bare soil."

How bad did the pasture chop up last year, given that you are on heavy country?

"Great point. Yes, not many have tried this on heavier soils. We allow a portion of our total 85 days wintering to be 2-day breaks, rather than 3-day breaks, in case of adverse weather, and with that factored in it allows for quicker shifting across the land. We find if the paddocks have had adequate rest and had time to set roots down, we see greater infiltration of rain. The pasture also protects the soil and the hay bale litter acts as cover for the soil also. The key here is biologically thriving soils, a thriving soil builds stable soil aggregates, and this holds soil integrity and structure together and minimises mud."

In the photos on Facebook you had bales of hay placed out already on the paddocks. Does it matter if they get wet?

"Some of the bales are baled on farm. They are baled in the paddock we intend to graze. This reduces carting and fertility transfer, labour and machinery costs. The net wrap naturally repels rain and to be honest, not a lot is spoiled. Generally, a thin layer on top is a little spoiled but nothing in the context of things, more food for the underground army!"

Did you grow all your own bales?

"We imported two thirds this year but as we transition away from diverse winter forage crops we will have more area in perennial pastures and be able to make our own. We now see the farm as a big solar panel, with perennial pastures we can maximise photosynthetic capacity, grow more grass, store more carbon from the atmosphere while feeding soil biology 365 days of the year with living plants.

With Regenerative grazing management we can already see how powerful it is. We are growing more pasture with less inputs leading us to either need more animals or leading us away from a mechanistic monoculture model to a more diverse polyculture system of a farm like the way our grandparents farmed."

What vegetation do your bales contain?

"Mainly what we can get at present but predominantly rye grass/red and white clover /cocksfoot/ timothy. Research from Massey University a few years back valued the nutrients in one bale to be up to $55. If that bale included chicory, plantain, docks etc the nutrient value would be a lot higher. What we are finding is our bales are naturally fertilising the land after fermentation through the cows rumen and the seed in the bales are also being spread about resulting in more diverse future pastures too."

How much will it cost you? Will you save money over winter cropping?

"This year we spent around $80,000 on bales, but in future we will be able to make more of our own. Remember, approximately 30% of that cost figure is "waste" returned to the soil as future water holding capacity, fertility and seed. So future fertiliser costs come down and we keep building healthy thriving soils rather than tilling for cropping taking two steps back and one forward with soil health.

Huge Tillage costs have now diminished and I am almost thinking about selling all our tillage gear apart from our direct drill, more of our land is collecting free energy via photosynthesis thus productive at all times, We are saving time, energy, fossil fuel usage, veterinarian costs related to drying off, holding nutrients and soil in place, retaining and building soil carbon and making our land more resilient.

The way I see it is I could either carry on a path (costly in many ways) of mechanistic farming which dominates and manipulates nature with the use chemicals and synthetic fertilisers or align with nature's principles to produce the healthiest outcomes for all, a very simple choice for us now that we know there is another way. 

As we hear more about human health this becomes a great story, the cows rumen microbiome is almost identical to a healthy soils microbiome, and as we dive more into human health we are seeing a humans gut microbiome has very similar parallels too. Soil, air and water are one, and if one is unhealthy so are the others. It is our commitment to the environment to build healthy soils for healthy people and a healthy thriving planet.

Very exciting. What a wonderful, on-going story. One that all New Zealand farmers will be interested in. What with the Minister of Agriculture paying Mark a visit on his regenerative farm yesterday, things are looking up for regenerative farming principles taking hold throughout the country!

I hope so.

Keep asking great questions