Stacked hay bales

How to get the most out of your limited hay supply

With the possibility of a dry spring leading to an even drier summer, getting the most out of your hay is critical.

Ranchers in a big swath of the Southwest and High Plains were in varying levels of drought; some have gone nearly five months with no measurable rain or snow. Fire danger is critical. 

With those conditions, ranchers can only make good winter forage go so far without depending heavily on hay. But poor hay quality, storage and feeding practices can easily cut into an already tight profit potential.

“The grass a cow harvests herself costs about 1.5 cents per pound. Hay costs 4 to 5 cents per pound,” says Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialist. That translates to an even higher expense if would-be-nutritious forage is trampled into mud or soil or covered with animal waste around the bale feeder.

Along with alfalfa, a variety of grasses are harvested as hay, ranging from warm season Bermuda further south to cool season grasses further north. Other feed, such as cornstalks and forages planted for hay, all provide cattle with supplemental protein and energy. “The quality of grass hay varies widely depending on the type of forage, management and condition of the forage, baling conditions and quality degradation during storage,” Peel says.

OSU Extension range management specialists note that well-fertilized Bermuda grass harvested early will have 12% to 15% crude protein and total digestible nutrients (TDN) at more than 55%. However, crude protein in under-fertilized, mature Bermuda will drop below 6% and TDN will fall below 50%.

Prairie and meadow hay typically have crude protein values between 6% and 9% and TDN of 50% to 52%. If harvested late and mature, these values may drop to 4% or 5% for crude protein with below 50% for TDN.

These poorer numbers could mean less gain and less milk production and count against added profit potential.

Are round bales too convenient?

Anyone who baled and hauled small square bales appreciates the miracle of round bale technology. Bucking bales in a non-ventilated barn in July was not a day at the beach. However, Peel says farmers and ranchers in those days “were typically more aware of the quality of hay, how much they were feeding and how much was being wasted.

“As a result, they often did a better job of managing cowherd nutrition and feed cost. Now, it takes some additional management to capture the advantages of round bales without wasting hay and incurring additional cost. It appears now that significantly more hay is wasted and poor pasture management has increased the number of days that cows are fed hay. Round bales probably have contributed to this trend.”

Peel suggests that better pasture management will help producers get more out of their grass and depend less on hay. “Manage the quantity and quality of pastures to extend grazing and minimize hay needs,” he says. “Consider stockpiling pasture for fall and winter grazing.

“Feeding hay costs 2.5 to 5 times as much as grazing. Every day that cows graze instead of receiving hay will save 50 cents to $1.50 per head in feed costs.”

Test and weigh

When buying hay, test it for quality and weigh it. Also, know how much hay cows are actually eating. Measure storage and feeding losses in order to know actual consumption and the true cost of hay.   

“Know what the bales weigh,” says Ted McCollum, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension beef cattle specialist in Amarillo. “Producers should buy hay by the ton and not by the bale. Round bales can vary by 100 to 200 pounds even when baled uniformly. But the weight can vary from 800 to 1,500 pounds, depending on the forage type, moisture content, bale dimensions and baling density.”

McCollum points out the findings of a University of Arkansas study which showed that Bermuda grass hay from farms averaged about 11% crude protein and a TDN of 59%.

“However, the crude protein varied from 5.6% to 18% in the study, and TDN ranged from 48% to 67%,” McCollum says, stating the need for testing.

When testing round bales, a core sample should be taken in the side of the bale. For large or small square bales, a core sample should be taken at the end of the bale.

“Take samples from every fifth to 10th bale, composite them together and send them to a lab for analysis,” McCollum says. “Then you can have a clearer idea of the overall nutritional value of the hay.”

The crude protein and TDN numbers are critical to manage nutrition and performance of the cow. “For example, if I think hay has 10% crude protein and it only has 7%, then I’ll have to spend extra dollars on protein supplement or lose performance of the cow because my assumption was wrong,” McCollum notes. “At the same time, if the crude protein is higher than assumed, I may spend more than needed on supplemental feed.”

Proper storage can save forage

“Round bales in particular are challenging to store properly,” Peel says. “Hay should be stored off the ground in well-drained areas, covered or stacked to ensure water shedding and drainage.”

Damage to the outer 6 inches of a round bale represents roughly one-third of the total dry matter of the bale. Consider the risk of fire losses when deciding the location and volume of hay storage sites.

By rolling out round bales or using hay feeders, which are designed to decrease feeding losses, producers can reduce hay wasted during feeding. Also, changing feeding sites frequently to avoid mud can preserve quality forage.

McCollum agrees that hay feeders will help reduce hay waste. “Hay feeders will typically result in 2 to 4 times less waste than feeding hay on the ground,” he says. “Cone feeders are more efficient than ring feeders.”

Also, remember that cows will always waste some hay. So, provide more hay than the cows require daily.

“Depending on quality, cows typically need to eat forage dry matter to equal about 2.3 to 2.5% of their body weight,” McCollum says. “For a 1,300-pound cow, that’s 30 pounds or more of hay. But depending on the feeding method and waste, it may take 31 to over 45 pounds of hay to provide her needs.”

Depending on the cost of grain, protein and energy feedstuff costs may sometimes be cheaper than hay. Peel encourages producers to measure the cost of hay nutrients against the cost of other supplemental feed sources.

“Hay feeding should be based on the animals’ nutritional needs at any point in time,” he says. “Feed the amount to ensure animals meet nutritional needs and manage feeding to minimize waste.”

Glen Selk, OSU emeritus beef cattle specialist, points out that intake in forage is generally limited by the forage capacity of the animal’s digestive tract. “Forage intake is correlated with forage quality (Figure 1),” he says. “The more rapid rate of digestion and passage of higher quality forage results in considerably higher dry matter intake compared to lower quality forage that is lower in digestibility.”

For lactating cows, additional energy is needed beyond what they’ll need for maintenance. “An average milking beef cow requires 50% more TDN or energy than she does when dry,” Selk explains.

Peel concludes that whether purchased or produced, it’s critical for producers to know the quality of hay. “Round bales of unknown quality and bale weight and which are subject to significant storage and feeding losses are wasteful, expensive and make it very difficult to manage cow herd nutrition,” he says.

Stalcup is a freelance writer based in Amarillo, Texas.

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