The Extra Cost of Purchased Hay

Winter is finally here and for many of us, that means dipping into hay stores. Dry weather this summer may have lead to hay reserves being a bit smaller than we’d hoped for. While we can reduce demand by adjusting rations or selling animals, sometimes purchasing hay may be the best option to fill in a feed gap.

When we do have to buy some extra, purchased hay is usually hauled in and fed without issue.  It’s a regular occurrence for many operations and should always be an option for consideration.  While the sticker cost is typically the first factor considered why buying hay, there are additional costs that purchased hay can bring to an operation.

1)      Get a Hay Test

Not all hay is created equal.  Even if our guess in quality is close, a few percentage points either way on energy or protein content can mean the difference between healthy cows come calving and a successful breed back or animals in low body condition and open animals next year.

Not only does a hay test provide a better understanding of what quality of product you are purchasing, it can help with finding the best deal when comparing options.  Use a tool like the UNL Feed Cost Cow-Q-Lator to come up with a cost per pound of energy or protein amount that can easily be compared with other hay sources or even alternative feed options.

2)      Don’t Spread Invasive Species

Even if the hay looks fine, unwanted hitchhikers may be lurking inside.  Hard to control weeds like sericea lespedeza and old-world bluestems from Kansas, absinthe wormwood from North and South Dakota, or even leafy spurge or Canada thistle from a local hay source can suddenly turn a clean pasture into a battle ground with noxious weeds.

Uninvited guests don’t have to be plants either. Alfalfa weevils can be shipped in from just about anywhere or fire ants from Texas or Oklahoma.  Fire ants won’t survive a typically harsh Nebraska winter, but if it’s mild and the hay is well-sheltered, they could be a problem for a season or two.

How do we mitigate these risks? Begin by asking questions.  Find out what pests are a problem in the area your hay is coming from.  Check references.  Reserve the right to refuse the hay after it arrives, and you’ve check it out thoroughly.  Then, when you feed the hay, do it only in a small area.  That way, if a problem does develop, you can keep it isolated and, hopefully, controllable.

3)      Is The Hay Toxic?

Outside of prussic acid, most toxic compounds become locked in when forage is harvested for hay.  Drought stress can lead to high levels of nitrates. Small grains and annual forage grasses along with some weedy species like pigweed are of especially high concern. It’s always best to get a nitrate test if you have any reservations.

Weedy hay may contain plants that are toxic to livestock.  Keep an eye out for anything unusual in the bale and try to identify unknown plants if possible.  This may need to be done on a bale-by-bale basis, as some species are patchy in growth and may not show up uniformly across a field.

Finally, hay that was put up in a rush may not have been dried and cured properly.  Wet hay often leads to mold growth.  Besides lowering the quality of feed, mold can cause raspatory issues with cattle breathing in the “dust” created by spores and in some cases mycotoxin development.  While not every mycotoxin is the same, consumption can lead to lowered gains and in extreme cases aborted calves and death.

Feeding animals through the winter can be a major cost for livestock operations. If you do need to purchase hay to fill a forage gap, there are some risks that need to be considered.  Get a hay test, watch out for invasive hitchhikers, and mitigate the risk of toxins.  By being prepared, purchased hay doesn’t have to come with an additional cost.

-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: