Does it really make sense to ground-feed onto mud?

Not all regions experience the same winter weather. Some areas get frigid winters, some humid, and some get downright warm. There’s a common misconception that hay fed out directly on the ground is fine only as long as the ground is frozen, but that hay fed onto mud causes hay waste. We know it’s counter-intuitive, but ground-feeding (even in muddy conditions) can cause substantially less wastage than using hay rings or traditional bale processors. In fact, as long as you feed in long, thin windrows, feeding onto the ground can reduce wastage from nearly 40% down to just 2-3%! Let’s find out why it makes sense to ground-feed even in muddy or water-logged conditions.

This video is by James Doran, owner and manager of Brookhill Angus Ranch, Kentucky, United States. James uses a John Deere 6110R and a Hustler Chainless TX205 bale feeder, and the video addresses a few of the topics we’ll cover below.

Don’t ruin all your efforts with just one winter!

If you practice regenerative agriculture, or simply care to improve the quality of your soil, chances are that you would implement various holistic practices on your farm such as pasture rotation, plant cover, reduction of chemical inputs, etc.. And you know that it’s hard, long-term work to achieve satisfactory results! So why would you want to ruin all your efforts by destroying your soil in just one single winter? The use of hay rings or hay wagons damages the soil in some cases irreparably, primarily due to hoof traffic and herd concentration in small areas. The soil is compacted, causing soil sterility, erosion, etc.

Feeding out your hay bales in long, thin, even windrows avoids excessive soil-compaction and prevents long-term soil barrenness and all the erosion problems that follow!

Your pastures are plates, not litters!

One of the major causes of hay waste is the use of hay rings. It is often thought that hay rings hold the hay in place and prevent spoilage/wastage. This is not true: as stated in the previous paragraph, hay rings encourage the creation and worsening of muddy conditions. As a result, cattle tend to drop hay from the hay ring to wallow in it because it becomes a big swath on which the cows would rather lie down than in the mud! But dispersing hay in long, particularly thin windrows onto the pasture, even muddy conditions will discourage cattle from lying in it.

Gain flexibility and create a safe environment for your herd

Another method used by ranchers and farmers around the globe is to create “sacrifice” paddocks. The idea is to “sacrifice” on purpose certain parts of your land to feed your herd in winter, knowing that nothing will grow (except maybe a few weeds) because the soil will be too damaged until full cultivation and resowing of another crop with the necessary nutrients being added back to the soil. What a costly waste! This technique not only unnecessarily wastes a paddock but also forces you to keep the herd close to this “sacrificed” paddock for longer than necessary.

And even if you rotate your livestock, your animals soon learn to be lazy and that they can just stay around the “sacrificed” paddock, waiting for the next feeding session. Remember: Less herd movement = more concentrated hoof traffic = more soil compaction = less grass production.

Encourage your herd to moooove

Ground-feeding in different places keeps your herd moving. Hustler’s Chainless bale feeders gently tease the hay into a long, fine windrow on the ground. This has two benefits:

  • Keeping the herd on the move prevents soil compression from concentrating animals in smaller areas.
  • Keeping the herd in motion breaks the effects of hierarchy within the herd. Cows and calves at the bottom of the pecking order have easy access to the feed because the dominant beasties cannot have their eyes everywhere, especially when the hay is spread over 1/4 mile!

Herd movement, in summer and in winter, is one of the foundations of the holistic and regenerative approach to agriculture and farming. Being inspired by nature and the behavior of large herds of wild ruminants is always interesting. Our consultant Lance Paskewitz had written a very interesting article on this subject: click here to read it.

Mud is also a phenomenon that accentuates diseases, especially for calves: a recent article on our blog explains in more detail the effects of mud on newborn calves. Moreover, when conditions are particularly muddy, your calves can get stuck and sometimes die! One point James Doran makes in his video is that with the ground feeding technique it is possible to strategically place hay where you want it. For example, if a storm is forecast, you can encourage your calves to spend the night on higher ground by distributing the hay at the hilltop. This gives you peace of mind when you go to bed!

Improve the quality of your pasture for free

This point is very well explained in James Doran’s video above. If you haven’t watched it all the way through, we suggest you do.

Ground feeding hay reduces soil compaction, as we said above, but also helps to regenerate your pasture. Why? In nature “nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed” as the French chemist and economist Antoine Lavoisier used to say. The trace amounts of hay that are not consumed by the animals will help regenerate the soil :

  • The hay will act as a plant cover, then gradually transform into compost, and decaying hay acts as a nitrogen corrector for the soil.
  • Grain from within the bale that has fallen to the ground, and especially in the mud, will help re-sow the pastures … with no extra cost or time spent! On this particular subject, we have a more detailed article right here.

Adjust the quantities of hay fed out

Of course ground-feeding requires more effort, and that it’s important to observe your herd and adjust the volume of hay distributed to the needs of the herd.

With Hustler’s Chainless bale feeders, you can choose the exact amount of hay you feed out, and where it is distributed. If a bale is started but you don’t need to feed it out entirely, no problem! Just leave it on your bale feeder table until you’re ready to feed again!

Whether the hay is distributed on the frozen or muddy ground, the result will be the same: the cows will act like “vacuum” cleaners on legs – to borrow the words of James Doran in his video. Your hay waste will be minimal because the hay won’t have enough time to be trampled or soaked because it’s distributed in a long, narrow windrow, already fluffed up, which allows the cows to consume it faster and easier. The cows do not need to grind into a compressed bale, as it would with a hay ring and it won’t be immediately soaked in water after being pulverized by a traditional hay processor. 


If you are using Hustler’s gear and you are implementing regenerative farming practices on your farm or ranch, we would love to share YOUR story! Contact our team at