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When does Making Hay become Feeding Hay?

Posted Aug. 1, 2002

I know what some of you are thinking right now: "This guy is crazy. 'Making' hay is 'feeding' hay, you just do it at different times of the year." Well, I may be crazy, but it's not because I contend that making hay is not always feeding hay. The mindsets behind these two actions are sometimes as different as night and day. Therefore, before making and feeding hay can be considered synonymous, there are a few considerations to keep in mind.

Fortunately, most of the Foundation's service area has been blessed with adequate rainfall (if there is such a thing) and mild temperatures this spring and early summer, kicking pasture production off right. In many instances, we have actually witnessed an overabundance of forage production for grazing purposes, and so have recommended baling the excess to be used at other times of the year or to sell. In any case, most, if not all, of this hay will wind up in front of some class of livestock so nutritive value must be considered at the time it is baled as well as when it is fed. The most important factors affecting the nutritive value of hay are moisture content at baling, length and conditions of storage, maturity at cutting, and forage species present. Moisture content at baling and storage characteristics add considerably to the nutritive value of the hay and are often at the control of the operator.

Excessive moisture content (greater than 22 percent) at baling is usually only an issue when it results in significant hay spoilage or a barn fire. However, baling wet hay results in a significant reduction in nutrient value along with losses in dry matter production (Table 1), which are detrimental when feeding. A natural event, commonly referred to as "heating," occurs when growing forages are cut and continue to give off heat due to respiration. This particular heat is of little consequence except to provide proper growing conditions for bacteria, and will subside as the moisture content of the forage drops during the curing process. But, if hay is baled too wet, microbe populations flourish and exacerbate the heating process, resulting in hay that is lower in nutritive value and dry matter availability (Table 1). In extreme cases, it results in significant losses due to hay and/or barn fires.

Moisture levels for safe storage vary with the size and density of the bale and the type of hay. Hay in small square bales should be baled between 15 and 22 percent moisture to minimize leaf shattering, molding and heating. Larger bales retain core moisture, thus internal heat, longer and should not be baled at moisture levels in excess of 18 percent. If baling hay with more than 22 percent moisture is necessary, do not stack for at least 30 days and consider this fact when feeding.

Large bales stored outside will suffer variable losses, depending on the moisture of the hay at baling, the extent of exposure to precipitation, soil drainage characteristics where the bales are stored, the amount of space between the bales, and the type of hay. Store properly-baled hay in a well-drained area, a minimum of three feet between bale rows, away from trees or shade, and in the same direction as prevailing winds (north and south). Now that the hay is put up right, let's jump ahead six months and talk about feeding it right. First and foremost, ask yourself, "What will be the nutrient demands (Table 2) of my cattle at feeding?" These demands will be influenced by stage of lactation, mature weight, frame size, breed and weather conditions. Furthermore, ask yourself "How is the existing forage base (quality and quantity) going to contribute to the feeding program?"

This information will yield insight into the quality of hay needed to be most efficient through the feeding period. Use the information discussed above to your benefit: observe where the hay has been stored, look for excessive mold, ask for nutrient (protein and energy) values, and ask if weights were taken. Instead of making the transaction solely on a per bale basis, implement the answers to the above questions so you can meet feeding goals most effectively. When hay producers are willing to collect and provide this type of information, and livestock producers ask for it and use it, then "making" and "feeding" hay become one and the same.

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