Winter is finally here and for some, dry weather has resulted in a lower than desired hay inventory. While we can reduce demand by adjusting rations or selling animals, purchasing hay may be the best option to fill in a feed gap.
Most of the time, purchased hay is hauled in and fed without issue. It’s a regular occurrence for many operations and should always be an option for consideration. While the sticker cost is typically the first factor considered why buying hay, there are additional costs that purchased hay can bring to an operation.
1. Get a Hay Test
Not all hay is created equal. While a seller may list hay quality in their advertisement, without a test to back it up, that number is just a guess. Unfortunately, more often than we’d like, that guess may be pretty far from truth. Many factors go into hay quality; plant maturity, species present, fertilization, moisture during growing, and how the hay was cured and put up are just a few. Even if our guess is close, a few percentage points either way on energy or protein content can mean the difference between healthy cows come calving and a successful breed back or animals in low body condition and open animals next year.
Not only does a hay test provide a better understanding of what quality of product you are purchasing, it can help with finding the best deal when comparing options. Using a tool like the UNL Feed Cost Cow-Q-Lator can factor in initial feed quality, transportation, storage, and feeding factors to come up with a cost per pound of energy or protein that can easily be compared with other hay sources or even alternative feed options.
2. Don’t Spread Invasive Species
Even if the hay looks fine, unwanted hitchhikers may be lurking inside. Hard to control weeds like sericea lespedeza and old-world bluestems from Kansas, absinthe wormwood from North and South Dakota, or even leafy spurge or Canada thistle from a local hay source can suddenly turn a clean pasture into a battle ground with noxious weeds.
Uninvited guests don’t have to be plants either. Alfalfa weevils can be shipped in from just about anywhere or fire ants from Texas or Oklahoma. Fire ants won’t survive a typically harsh Nebraska winter, but if it’s mild and the hay is well-sheltered, they could be a problem for a season or two.
How do we mitigate these risks? Begin by asking questions. Find out what pests are a problem in the area your hay is coming from. Check references. Reserve the right to refuse the hay after it arrives, and you’ve check it out thoroughly. Then, when you feed the hay, do it only in a small area. That way, if a problem does develop, you can keep it isolated and, hopefully, controllable.
3. Is The Hay Toxic?
Outside of prussic acid, most toxic compounds become locked in when forage is harvested for hay. Drought stress can lead to high levels of nitrates. Small grains and annual forage grasses along with some weedy species like pigweed are of especially high concern. If you have concerns, a forage nitrate test can quickly tell if you have a problem or not.
Weedy hay may contain plants that are toxic to livestock. Because hay is a dried form of the plan an often limit fed or ground up, animals can end up consuming more of these plants than normal as their ability to be selective is decreased. Keep an eye out for anything unusual in the bale and try to identify unknown plants if possible. This may need to be done on a bale-by-bale basis, as some species are patchy in growth and may not show up uniformly across a field.
Finally, hay that was put up in a rush may not have been dried and cured properly. Wet hay often leads to mold growth. Besides lowering the quality of feed, mold can cause raspatory issues with cattle breathing in the “dust” created by spores and in some cases mycotoxin development. While not every mycotoxin is the same, consumption can lead to lowered gain and in extreme cases aborted calves and death.
4. Plan Ahead
Most producers have a good handle on how much hay they need to make it through the winter months and have hopefully secured what is needed already. Maybe this planning already takes into consideration a worst-case winter scenario already, but if not, it’s worth considering. What if the snow starts to fly and stockpiled pasture or crop residues are no longer accessible? Do we have enough hay on hand if we start feeding early? What about if we have a cold dry spring and a late green up?
Scenarios don’t have to directly address forage quantity either. Does the hay on hand have high enough quality to cover animal demands through calving and into peak lactation? What if an extended cold snap occurs and animal energy demands increase dramatically? Do we need to investigate some supplemental feed options? We can’t prepare for every “what-if” that may come our way, but even by taking some time to think through possible situations we can be better prepared to act when needed.
No more hay is going to be produced this growing season, so what is available is all we have to work with. With high demand and prices, there are always people out to take advantage of the situation. If a deal seems too good to be true, it often is. Hay posted for sale is not always guaranteed and scams are unfortunately all to common. Purchase hay through a verified or trusted source and paying only after viewing the hay personally can help prevent a bad transaction.
Feeding animals through the winter is not going to be cheap or easy this year. If you do need to purchase hay to fill a forage gap, there are some risks that need to be considered. Get a hay test, watch out for invasive hitchhikers, mitigate the risk of toxins, take your planning above and beyond and be careful if a deal seems too good to be true. By being prepared, purchased hay doesn’t have to come with an additional cost.