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The Value of Your Hay

Feature article from the Central Grasslands Forum - Winter 2015 edition

Green balesWhat is your hay worth for your on-ranch use or off-ranch markets? Is it a valued agricultural product? This was discussed during the talk "Hay Bale Management" at our recent NDSU Beef Cattle Winter Management Workshops.

Energy is a valued part of our feedstuffs in the winter, so let us look at the cost per pound of total digestible nutrients (TDN) using three common winter feeds and a median cost for production per ton on cash rent land (Source: North Dakota Farm and Ranch Business Management Education 2013 Annual Report; State Averages).

Average dry matter = 35 percent for corn silage, 88 percent for grass-alfalfa and 80 percent for alfalfa. We recommend that feed be tested for exact results.

As we can see from the table, the higher the TDN and hay quality, the more cost effective the hay product becomes. For example, 57 percent TDN reflects a very high-quality early cut grass-alfalfa hay, which is attainable with focused management. On the other hand, variables such as bale waste, moisture, quality and land rent will affect the bottom line.

Hay remains a primary winter feed for many cowherds, often being the cheapest feed to maintain adult cows through the winter. However, corn silage, which is naturally energy-rich, is very useful when animal performance - for example, the growth of calves or young breeding stock - is targeted.

How can we gain value with our hay? Reducing quality losses and waste due to outside storage are two main areas where we can gain on- and off-ranch value.

Animal performance improves with better-quality hay. Energy and protein values of grasses and forbs are highest when plants are tender and young, and lower as they mature and lignify. Cut choices depends on maximizing forage yield and quality.

High moisture at baling time or during storage can deteriorate hay quality. Moisture above 20 percent can cause bale heating and a loss of nutrients, as well as the growth of molds.

Hay testing is critical. You really have no way to know the quality of your hay unless you test it. This is important not only when you bale, but also just before you feed. Fortunately, this is affordable insurance at $12 to $32 per sample. For help with hay testing, your county Extension agent is a valuable resource.

One solution for reducing hay loss can be storing bales off of wet ground. Research has shown a difference of up to 5 percent less loss in nine months and up to 15 percent less loss in 18 months with elevating bales stored outside.

Another possibility is to produce baleage, a fermented hay product that retains quality and initially is wrapped at 50 to 60 percent moisture.

Winter feed costs remain at 50 percent of the variable costs of an operation, which is double that of summertime feeding costs. Focused hay management potentially can mitigate these costs by adding more value to hay as a cost-effective and high-quality feed source.

Feeding cattle in winter

                                                                                                                                                       Photos by Rick Bohn

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