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Feeding Hay the Efficient Way

Feeding Hay the Efficient Way

by Doug Spencer, Rangeland Management Specialist
Natural Resources Conservation Service
Marion, Kansas

For many producers the single largest expense in running a cow is winter feed costs. Feeding hay to cattle is expensive due to the cost of machinery, fertilizer, fuel, and labor to make and feed the hay. Minimizing the amount of hay needed to support the cow herd and/or becoming more efficient in the use of that hay is a good start to improving profit potential. Let’s consider some ways to better utilize the hay we feed and some management strategies to help our resources.

According to a University of Missouri extension publication, improper storage and feeding techniques can result in more than a 50 percent loss of the hay that was harvested in the field. Unrolling large round bales of hay on pasture is a popular practice for many and as long as a single-day supply is fed, feeding losses average a little over 12 percent. If you cannot make a daily trip to the field and a seven-day supply is made available, the losses jump to 43 percent. That same seven-day supply of large round bales if fed in a feeder will only incur losses of just over 5 percent. The goal when feeding on pasture is to feed hay in small quantities if not using a feeder or use a feeder if more than a single-day supply is offered in order to make the most of your hay supply. Location of these feeders and feed sites should be 180 feet away from streams and water supplies to protect surface water quality. A producer should save feed areas protected by cover for the coldest winter days and during warmer days, feed farther away from cover and water to better distribute manure and grazing.

Purdue University beef nutritionists looked at limiting the amount of time a cow has access to the feeder in order to evaluate cow performance and hay intake. The trial offered cows access to hay for a 4-, 8-, 12-, and 24-hour (hr) period each day. Mature cows reduced their intake from 29.6 pounds (lbs) of dry matter in the 24-hr exposure to 18.6 lbs of dry matter in the 4-hr exposure. Weight change of the cows was only slightly affected as the cows with 24-hr exposure gained 59 lbs during the 50-day trial and the cows with 4-hr exposure gained 49 lbs. A huge savings in feed costs would occur with a 40 percent reduction in dry matter needs and only slight differences in animal performance. Another way to view this research is if you are currently feeding a one-day supply of hay to the cows via unrolling or via a bale processor, consider observing the feed site 4 to 8 hours after the hay is delivered. If there is still considerable amounts of hay left on the ground, you may be over-supplying and having unneeded waste. The same study was conducted with young cows, but they were more adversely affected by the reduction in hay intake.

One key to making this system work is to have a small containment area along with adequate feeder space for all animals to access the feed during the short feeding time.

The second key is to monitor animal performance and use strategic supplementation, if needed, in order to maintain adequate body condition, especially in young cows. Developing a fenced feed pad away from streams and water bodies on a site that has adequate drainage and a good grass buffer below would be ideal for this situation. Having cropland or cool-season pasture adjacent to this feed pad would mean fewer miles traveled to spread the manure from the feed site. Soil tests on the land and manure sample tests from the feed site would help determine the best location to spread the manure from the feed site.

A final inefficiency occurs with the nutrients that are delivered to a property via the hay bale. Mature cattle redeposit a majority of the nutrients that are consumed and it is up to us where they deposit it. A 100-acre pasture that has a 100-head cow herd being fed good quality cool-season grass hay for a 110-day feeding cycle would receive 23 pounds per acre (lbs/ac) of nitrogen, 23 lbs/ac of phosphorus, and 67 lbs/ac of potash according to a University of Missouri extension publication. If we feed in one spot the whole season, those values would not truly make it over the entire 100 acres. In order for those nutrients to be of the most benefit, be sure to move the feeding site regularly (every two days) throughout the feeding season to better distribute the manure (nutrients). Do not use the same pasture(s) every year for winter feeding to prevent creating a nutrient imbalance among pastures on the farm. When choosing land to feed on, try to select those areas where the hay was harvested or nutrient-lacking land such as go-back land or cool-season pasture that is not regularly fertilized. As mentioned before, use setbacks when feeding near streams, ponds, and other water bodies to prevent surface water contamination by nutrients and manure.

Reducing inefficiencies during winter feeding can greatly impact your pocketbook as well as your resources. With prices of feed and products on the rise, take time to consider ways to keep that valuable dollar in your pocket.

If you would like to learn more about improving winter feeding sites or would like help in developing a plan, please contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office or conservation district office located at your local county USDA Service Center. The office is located at your local U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Service Center (listed in the telephone book under United States Government or on the internet at More information is also available on the Kansas Web site at Follow us on Twitter @NRCS_Kansas. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

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