NDSU Extension - Ramsey County


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October 24, 2011 Agriculture Column

Managing Hay to Reduce Waste


Carl Dahlen, NDSU Extension Beef Cattle Specialist


Every year, producers wish for enough dry weather to harvest high-quality forages to feed their cattle during the winter. Continuous rain on cut hay does not bode well for feed quality. Once the hay is baled potential losses still exist during storage and feeding.


Hay Storage

Hay loss during storage is greatly affected by the location of hay and whether it is covered. Iowa State University summarized research evaluating hay loss and found an average dry-matter loss of 28 percent (range of 5 to 61 percent) for hay stored outside without a cover. The potential for hay loss is reduced as the climate gets drier. That’s because precipitation, contact with wet ground and moisture from other bales are the driving forces of the hay loss. To minimize the loss of uncovered bales stored outside, place bales on a hard surface, in single rows, with bales stacked face to face; this eliminates moisture accumulation on the faces of bales and at points where bales touch when stacked in a pyramid.


When hay was stored outside and covered, the loss fell to 13 percent, and bringing the hay into a building reduced the loss to around 5 percent. However, producers need to consider carefully the economic merit of building a structure to store hay or purchasing tarps and covering haystacks before beginning construction or making purchases.


A hay storage cost comparison tool is available at www.extension.iastate.edu/agdm/crops/xls/ a1-15haystoragecost.xls for producers who wish to explore the economic implications of different storage techniques.


Hay Feeding

Studies at NDSU, the University of Minnesota and Michigan State University have evaluated four critical comparisons that influence hay waste: 

1) rolling out bales compared with shredding hay through a bale processor,

2) feeding hay directly on the ground compared with feeding in some type of structure,

3) different types of bale feeding structures and

4) amount of time cows have access to hay.


Cows consuming bales that were processed and windrowed consumed more hay and had a 16-pound weight gain advantage during a 60-day feeding period compared with cows fed bales that were rolled out. In addition, the amount of wasted hay was slightly greater when bales were rolled out compared with processed bales.


However, an economic analysis showed the cost of feeding was greater when a bale processor was used compared with rolling bales out for feeding. Producers evaluating the two scenarios need to consider whether additional pounds gained when feeding processed hay are worth the added expense. In cases where greater intake is desired (for example, thin cows that need to put on weight), the added expense may be worthwhile.


Feeding bales in a hay ring resulted in less waste compared with rolling bales out on the ground. In addition, feeding processed hay in a bunk resulted in less waste compared with feeding processed hay on the ground. Interestingly, in all cases, the hay intake was similar (around 26 pounds of hay, dry-matter basis). The average waste for either of the ground feeding methods was around 18 percent, whereas the average waste from feeding in some type of structure was around 5 percent.


Feeding large round bales into a tapered-cone hay ring resulted in more weight gain compared with rolling bales out on the ground and in cheaper overall feed costs compared with rolling hay on the ground and processing bales.


Tapered-cone hay rings also have shown promise when compared with other types of hay feeders. When compared with cows eating from traditional hay rings, hay trailers or hay cradles, cows eating from a tapered-cone ring wasted fewer pounds of hay but had similar hay intake. Authors of one report recommend that bales fed through a tapered-cone ring must be wrapped tightly and twine must not be removed to realize the waste-saving benefit from this type of feeder.


Reducing the amount of time cows had access to hay also was an effective strategy to reduce hay intake and waste. When cows were given access to hay for six, 14 or 24 hours per day, cows with hay access for six hours wasted the least amount of hay compared with the other groups. However, body weight gain was impacted by restricting access to hay. Cows with unlimited access to hay gained 20 pounds more than cows with restricted access to hay (six or 14 hours). While this method of managing cows could reduce overall feed consumption and hay waste, the long-term implications of such a management strategy are unknown.


Producers who decide to limit-feed cows in some fashion need to ensure that the feeding area is large enough so all cows can have access to the feed when it is delivered. The combination of limiting access to feed and restricting the time cattle have access to feed may leave cows on the lower end of the social hierarchy without a meal.


Hay loss and feed waste are inevitable components of most beef production systems. Understanding the sources of hay loss from storage and feeding, as well as the impacts of restricting access to hay, can allow producers to develop strategies to optimize feed utilization on their operations

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