Managing Hay Losses

Snowy weather has limited grazing opportunities this winter, and feed costs are not doing budgets any favors.  As we continue through the winter, are there opportunities to reduce feed losses and increase our feed efficiencies.

If you’ve listened to this segment at all, you should be able to guess what first step I’m going to recommend.  That’s right, get a hay test.  A NIRS forage test can provide you with the energy, protein, and mineral content of your feed on hand.  Knowing what hay is highest quality and what hay we need to provide supplement with to meet animal needs is critical for developing a feed plan.  Without this knowledge, we risk over/under feeding animals and the problems that come with it.  You may think that a visual assessment is enough, and sometimes it is, but there are just as many cases where good looking hay is lower quality than you’d expect.  $20 is a pretty low price to pay to be certain.

Next, let’s look at amount and frequency of feeding. If hay is fed free choice or unrestricted, studies have shown cattle wasting up to 45% of what is provided. Limit feeding hay so only what is required is fed, will significantly reduce waste right away, even when fed on the ground. One study looking at frequency of feeding showed cattle fed daily needed 25% less hay than those feed every 4 days to maintain similar body condition. This can be as labor intensive as a daily feeding, or something as simple as limiting access to hay in a feeder for a few hours each day.

Another way to reduce waste is to limiting access to the hay with physical barriers. The most effective physical barriers have solid side bottoms. This prevents the hay being pulled out of the feeder and onto the ground. Studies by the University of Missouri, Oklahoma State, and Michigan State on feed loss from bale feeders all found open bottom ring feeders resulting in 20% losses, closed bottom ring feeders had 13% loss, and cone feeders with only 5% loss. While feeders limit waste, they do require the purchase of additional equipment and increase labor when feeding. For large herds or a changing feeding location, this can add significant time and money.

When we add up the combined impact of storage and feed loss, the results can be substantial. For example, even a 10% storage and 15% feeding loss totaling 25% and $200/ton hay results in 50$/ton lost.  Added up over the course of a season, and there can be a lot of money left on the table.

One exception to all this is hay we know has issues.  Hay with a concerning amount of mold growth can run the risk of causing respiratory issues or something even more serious if mycotoxins are present.  In these cases, we don’t want to waste the bale, but also don’t want to risk our animal health.  Rolling out the bale and allowing animals the ability to pick through and select the good stuff with another clean hay source available may be the best option.  There is still a risk that animals consuming bad hay and having issues, however, by allowing selectivity, most of the hay consumed will be the good portions and the bad part will be left behind.

One final point to consider is what we consider as waste.  Trampled hay can be considered beneficial as bedding or a soil amendment, and there is truth in this.  The addition of organic matter in trampled hay as well as concentrated manure and urine from feeding could be seen as a soil amendment, not a loss.  With high hay prices, the cost of amending soil in this fashion needs to be taken into consideration, but feeding loss can sometimes be all in the eye of the beholder.

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator serving the counties of Antelope, Cedar, Knox, Madison and Pierce.  He is based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: