Maximizing Your Hay Supply

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Winter feed costs are usually the largest expense for livestock producers. Feeding hay is expensive, not only because of the high cost of equipment but also the cost of labor to harvest and feed, and because of the high waste, either because of poor storage methods or benevolent feeding practices, and sometimes both, which contribute to the high cost of winter-feeding. As producers, one of the easiest ways to reduce feed costs are to minimize the amount of hay wasted through improper feeding principles. Whether feeding large round bales or small square bales, producers should always look for ways to reduce the amount their animals waste and trample during feeding.

On large round bales, feeding hay in small amounts limits the amount available for livestock to trample and soil, making them clean it up better as they are limited in supply, and more readily clean up the amount placed before them. Feeding the hay in a ring or some type of feeder also reduces the amount wasted, and extends the feed supply, while also letting the producer feed more than a day’s worth of hay without extensive waste.

Feeding hay in well-drained areas can also reduce the amount of hay that animals waste each winter. Feeding in well-drained areas reduces mud buildup and spoilage from moisture wicking upward into hay from wet soil. Producers who feed in one location throughout the winter should consider creating heavy use areas or concrete feeding areas to minimize mud and maximize hay utilization. It may also benefit producers to move hay-feeding areas about the farm to limit damage to the pastures and protect forage stands.

Always feed hay stored outside first, to help limit spoilage. Hay stored outside on the ground will encounter the most spoilage, so feed these bales first before feeding any barn stored hay or hay that is stored elevated and covered. This hay will continue to lose palatability and will be spoiled on the outside leading to higher waste. Cattle will waste more low quality hay than they will of high quality hay, so feeding the lower quality first will not cause refusal when the better hay from the barn is fed.

The most common way of feeding large round bales is in hay rings or feeders. If you feed without hay rings, you have no way to limit trampling or waste. Using hay rings is essential to those producers who cannot feed hay daily to their livestock. By using rings, you can limit access to trampling and waste, and feed an appropriate amount of hay for the number of livestock for a specific number of days. For estimating the number of rings to use, most rings have enough space for ten animals to eat at a time. The boss cows will eat first and the timid cows will eat last, or not at all. In a thirty cow herd, cows will need 30 lbs. of dry matter a day, so thirty cows need a 900 lb. bale each day. With one ring, many of the young and timid animals will not get much to eat, or none at all. A better way would be to use three hay rings and feed 3 rolls every three days. This allows all cows access to the hay and prevents the boss cows from eating all the best forage, and reduces feeding waste.

Many producers unroll their bales and feed it on the ground loose. This allows all livestock to eat at the same time, and if moved daily, can prevent damage to pasture forage stands, and allows producers to distribute manure and residual nutrients more evenly. However, if more than a day’s supply is to be fed, there can be extensive waste from soiling and trampling and this is even worse in wet, rainy weather, leading to feeding losses of up to 40%.

For producers feeding small square bales, their most expensive loss is usually not from spoilage of feeding losses but from labor cost. However, small squares should generally be fed in a feed bunk or hay feeding rack to reduce losses. Usually, if small square bales are distributed by daily amounts over a pasture, very little loss occurs from soiling or trampling. This in turn also helps distribute manure more evenly across a pasture. Generally, handling and feeding cost for square bales are two to four times greater than round bales.

Livestock producers looking to trim winter feeding costs can be successful, by following these general hay-feeding rules. Limiting the amount of spoilage, feeding wastage, and mud issues on the farm can go a long way toward extending hay supplies and reducing our dependency of stored forages to make it through the winter months. Attention to details will help producers reduce expenses and ready them to capture more profits in today’s economy.

Written By

Photo of Damon PollardDamon PollardExtension Agent, Agriculture - Livestock and Field Crops, Forestry (828) 439-4460 damon_pollard@ncsu.eduBurke County, North Carolina
Posted on Dec 11, 2013
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