In many cow-calf operations hay cost accounts for a large portion of the winter supplementation bill. Therefore, it is prudent for ranchers to get every cent of value out of the hay they feed. Several management practices will conserve hay and warrant consideration in your operation.
An accurate nutrient analysis is essential to correctly determine the amount of hay that a particular class of cattle needs to meet their nutritional requirement. It has been my observation that a majority of hay is fed free choice with cows consuming as much as they desire. Daily consumption will vary depending upon the quality of the hay, but it is generally accepted that a cow will consume 2.0-2.2% of her body weight on average quality grass hay. These results question if we really want to allow a 1200 pound cow to consume 26.5 pounds of hay per day if nutritionally she only needs 14 pounds per day? Probably not. Nevertheless, we have no way of knowing how much the cow really needs unless we have an accurate nutrient analysis.
There are several methods for sampling baled hay. The best technique is to use a mechanical coring probe made specifically for this purpose. The coring probe consists of a metal tube with a serrated end. The probe is about 18 inches long, and one inch in diameter, and is attached to a mechanical drilling brace or cordless drill with a special adapter. A more commonly used method of hay sampling is the hand-grab technique. The hand-grab method is faster and does not require special equipment. However, it tends to be less accurate than the use of a sampling probe. To sample properly, one must use a consistent technique and select from the middle two-thirds of a round hay bale or the middle third of a square bale. Sample by extending an open hand a minimum of six inches into the open side of a hay bale, grabbing a handful of hay, removing it from the bale, and placing all of the sample into a container. Sample each hay type or field independently making sure to indicate date baled, cutting, forage type, and pasture or field. The owner's name, or farm name, should also be included on the bag. If you suspect for any reason that the nutrient content of two hays may vary significantly, that is reason enough for separation into a separate sampling lot. The number of samples needed is similar regardless of sampling method. A good rule of thumb is to randomly sample ten percent of the bales in a specific lot. For more information on hay sampling, see Hugh Aljoe's article available on the Noble Research Institute's website at http://www.noble.org/Ag/Forage/Sampling/Hay.htm.
Hay feeding methods vary greatly, from simply opening the gate on the hay trap, (Picture 1) to grinding, combining with other ingredients and feeding in a trough. In most situations, the most appropriate means of feeding round bales is in a hay feeder or hay ring (picture 2). In fact, a University of Missouri study conducted in 1973 by Bell and Maertz, found that cattle wasted only nine percent of the large round bales fed in a hay feeder as compared to 45 percent of those fed without a feeder of any kind. The cost of a hay feeder or ring may be relatively inexpensive if you consider that it potentially can save you over one third of every round bale fed.
The way that round bales are stacked and stored can also dramatically affect hay loss. The best storage situation is inside a barn or under a shed of some type. However, most producers do not have the luxury of a hay storage facility. If hay must be stored outside, round bales should be butted end to end tightly against each other. The stacking area should be in an area free of shading with the rows running north and south at least two feet apart to allow for maximum drying effect of the sun. If possible, get the bales off the ground by using three to six inches of crushed stone or caliche, pallets, tires or an old abandoned roadway. Bermuda and sorghum sudan hays are more resistant to storage losses than are legumes or cool season perennials.
Hay feeding typically represents a large portion of the expense in maintaining a cow through the winter. The combination of knowing the correct amount of hay to feed, feeding the hay in an effective method, and storing the hay in such a way as to reduce losses can all be effective means of reducing your expenses.