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Hay is for nutrition, not costly bedding

Rob Kallenbach would like livestock producers to rethink how they handle winter feed.

Hay is for nutrition, not costly bedding

Rob Kallenbach would like livestock producers to rethink how they handle winter feed.

“Hay has always been expensive, and the price has gone up,” says the University of Missouri Extension forage specialist. “Input costs for making hay rise with the cost of fertilizer, diesel and equipment.”

With higher inputs, the cost of getting hay to cows goes up also.

Kallenbach can give some best management practice, or BMP, tips on cutting costs.

First, he gives his top preference: “Don’t feed hay at all.” Increasingly, producers keep herds on stockpiled fescue right on through the winter, without hay. When grass is under snowdrifts, hay must be fed. But that is Plan B.

Look at two ways to cut hay-feeding costs. First, cut waste. It’s not uncommon to lose 40% of baled hay.

Second, use less time — that’s less tractor time, moving big bales in winter. That saves money and keeps farmers out of wind chills. 

Driving down the road, Kallenbach spots what he considers too much hay wastage.

Leaving big bales uncollected in the field, then turning cows into the field full of bales makes a huge loss. “Cows eat the core out of a bale, and then go to the next one.”

Wasted hay left on the pasture becomes a problem the next growing season. “Some just burn the waste piles where bales were fed.”

Key Points

• Rising inputs boost the cost of making and feeding hay.

• It’s common for livestock to waste almost half of the hay in winter feeding.

• The right bale ring or unrolling method can cut hay loss significantly.

Controlled cuts waste

Put out just enough hay to meet the daily nutrient demands. That takes simple arithmetic. If a cow needs 35 pounds of hay a day, multiply that times cows in the herd.

For a 100-head cowherd, that is 3,500 pounds of hay, or about three big bales. Adjust for cow size and bale size. Unrolling hay is a big improvement over giving cows unrolled bales. Bale rings help preserve quality hay.

Without a bale ring, hay becomes bedding. Rings reduce waste from 40% down to 5% to 10%. If you count the true cost of hay that’s big savings.

There are differences in bale rings. Studies in North Dakota show that cone feeders can cut loss even more — down to 4%. The higher quality the hay, the greater the cost savings and quicker payback on ring investments.

A mistake Kallenbach sees with rings is not having enough feeding space for all cows in the herd. Each ring will feed about 10 head. Do the math on how many rings to buy for the herd. With too few rings, boss cows are well fed, while timid cows needing nutrition get the short end. “Timid cows eat leftovers.”

Too often Kallenbach sees bale rings left in the same spot all winter. Moving the rings spreads the waste hay and manure over the field. That’s soil nutrient management.

The longer a ring is left in place, the deeper it becomes buried and the tougher it is to move. Frequent moves keep rings above-ground, not frozen in place.

Producer BMPs

The forage specialist also sees good ideas. For small herds whose owners work off-farm, hay feeding can be done using the controlled-grazing paddock method.

One day a week, unroll hay for one day of feeding in each paddock. Or, polywires can be strung to make hay-feeding paddocks across a pasture. Feeding time each day involves opening the hot-wire gate to the next paddock.

Unrolling hay this way helps solve the problem of matching bale size to herd size. It also allows for adjusting how much hay is fed next time.

“If there is still lots of hay left when you come back the next day, that’s a clue to cut back on hay,” Kallenbach notes.

Winter hay feeding takes observation, just as summer grazing management requires observation. At the MU forage center at Linneus, big bales are spaced along the edge of paddocks, often in two rows, where they will be fed. They are not butted up against each other, as is usual.

When stored, the bales are fenced off with a polywire. In winter, the wire is moved to expose the bales to be fed. Feeding areas are moved each year to spread the nutrient load. After the stockpiled fescue in a paddock is eaten, the bale area is opened, say three bales at a time.

Extra tips

Hay-feeding tips are included in MU guide sheet G4570. It is available through local MU Extension centers or online at


BALE BMP: Baled hay, fed without a ring or controlled unrolling, often becomes bedding and toilet for the cowherd. Half of the hay can be wasted, adding to the cost of your winter feeding bill.

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.

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