Between drought , politics  and questions surrounding domestic consumer beef demand , this fall is shaping up to present producers with one of those head-scratching forks in the road. But one thing that does seem assured is that hay will be scarce and expensive .
“Alfalfa hay production is estimated to decrease by 21.5% and other hay production is projected to decrease by 13.3% compared to the 2006-2010 average,” said Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension livestock marketing specialist, in early September. “These combine for an estimated 2012 all-hay production figure for the U.S. that is 17.3% smaller than the 2006-2010 average and would be the smallest total U.S. hay production since 1976.”
Peel says the Livestock Marketing Information Center estimates the 2012-2013 season-average hay price at a record $195/ton; that’s $22/ton more than last year’s record price and 60% more than the average price of $122/ton for 2006-2010.
Though beef cow slaughter moderated in the late summer, Peel thinks culling could pick up this fall when producers who eked out the summer without paring their herds  figure out how high hay prices are going to be. Thus, postponing an inevitable decision and selling alongside other producers in the same straits when cull prices are typically the lowest (October-November) could be costly, he says.
For cows remaining on the payroll, the cheapest hay is always the hay that doesn’t have to be fed. Last December, David Lalman, OSU Extension cattle specialist, shared some tips on conserving hay that bears recounting again this year.
“We can reduce winter hay needs  by almost a third by using two of these three strategies: feed an ionophore, limit-feed hay and reduce hay waste,” Lalman explains.
• Feed an ionophore. In an OSU study, cows receiving common prairie hay and 2 lbs./day of supplement (30% crude protein) with 200 mg/day of Rumensin® – the only ionophore labeled for use in breeding cows – gained 30 lbs., or about a half of one body condition score (BCS), over 58 days. The cost of feeding the ionophore  with cattle feed was 2¢/day.
In previous research, Lalman says Rumensin in cow rations  reduced feed intake by about 10% without affecting performance.
A word of caution: Rumensin is toxic to horses.
• Limit feed hay. Cows need to be in a minimum BCS of 4-5 to limit feed hay. This limit-feeding strategy, which is often used in growing cattle, improves feed efficiency, increases digestibility and decreases waste.
Based on previous research, Lalman says giving cows access to hay for six hours/day – fencing off hay feeders as an example – rather than unlimited access, reduces intake by 20%.
If access can’t be restricted, Lalman suggests estimating the amount of hay cows require daily and then reducing it by 20%.
Across 85-90 days, Lalman says research indicates that cows limit-fed hay  will lose 20-40 lbs., or about half of one BCS. If it’s a viable option, though, Lalman emphasizes that utilizing the strategy can reduce hay needs by 20%.
• Reduce hay waste. Any type of hay feeder  is more efficient than using none at all, Lalman says, but the specific type of feeder used makes a huge difference in waste.
For instance, an open-bottom bale ring – no sheeting around the bottom – means about 21% of the hay put into it is wasted, according to OSU research. “Losing 21% of prairie hay that costs more than $150/ton gets expensive,” Lalman says.
Compare that to a modified-cone feeder . Waste associated with this design is about 5%. Just adding sheeting to the bottom of an open-bottom bale ring reduces waste from 21% to about 13%, Lalman says.
The bottom line, Lalman points out, is that by using two of these three strategies, he’s confident that a savings of 30% in hay, and in turn your total cattle feed bill, is achievable.
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