Not long ago, cheap commodity prices made it easy to look at hay as just filler. Nutritional deficiencies could be inexpensively corrected by feeding a supplement. Those days are gone, and quality hay has real value when compared to a commodity feed, but the value is in nutritional quality.
Quality hay can also go a long way in your winter feeding program. For example, take an 1,100-pound cow that milks 15 pounds per head per day during the suckling phase and divide her production period into four segments.
Dry matter loss due to weathering can add up significantly. If a 5-foot diameter bale is weathered to a 2-inch depth, 13 percent of the bale volume is weathered. At 4 inches, 25 percent is weathered, at 6 inches, 36 percent is weathered and at 8 inches, 46 percent is weathered. If this weathered hay is not eaten, then value is lost.
To minimize weathering losses, make or purchase well- made bales that are dense and will hold their shape. Store them in a well-drained area, preferably off of the ground and in a location with good sunlight and air circulation to speed drying after rain. Net wrapping or some type of cover will also help.
Feeding losses are difficult to estimate, but we know they occur. Minimize losses by feeding round bales in a ring that restricts access. Move the feeding location often to avoid masses of hay piling up around a bale being fed. If you like to roll hay out, just make sure that you roll out only what will be consumed that day.
Want to know what these losses feel like? If you have a row of round bales slowly sagging away, take $10 out of your wallet for each bale, drop it on the ground and leave it there. Do the same for large feeding losses in the field. Hay has value, and we can't afford to squander it.
The Noble Foundation has several tables available to further illustrate these points.