Many producers strive to eliminate winter hay feeding due to cost of production and labor required for feeding. This is an excellent goal to shoot for, but from a practical standpoint, one that may not be attainable. At the Noble Research Institute Pasture Demonstration Farm during the winter of 2003-'04, we fed hay to our fall-calving cowherd for 57 days by extending the grazing season using a combination of forages that included stockpiled bermudagrass, stockpiled tall fescue and annual ryegrass. While some type of a hay feeding period is usually unavoidable, there are ways to reduce costs. First, calculate your cost of production, which will enable you to determine if you should bale your hay with owned equipment, have someone else bale your hay or if you should purchase it. Table 1 shows hay production costs developed using Oklahoma State University and Noble Research Institute budget templates. Budgets were developed assuming a 2.26 ton/acre bermudagrass yield with associated costs to attain that yield goal. Hay was valued at $60/ton, and the feeding period was 90 days.
This table says that if you are a small operator, you cannot bale enough hay for a return above operating and fixed costs to justify owning hay equipment. Only when you get in the neighborhood of 300 cows and 200 acres of hay do breakeven yields above total costs become easily attainable. Will everyone's cost of production look the same? Absolutely not, and there is no doubt many folks will put up hay cheaper than what is in the table, but if you don't know your costs, figure them.
Another way to reduce costs is to reduce hay waste or loss. Hay is lost during harvest, storage and feeding. A basic recommendation that is given often to reduce feeding loss is to use bale rings when feeding large round bales. Does this make a difference? Recently published work from North Dakota State University showed it does. In their study, 144 three- to ten-year-old cows were allocated to three treatment groups and fed for a period of 58 days where hay was rolled out on the ground, fed in a windrow using a bale processor or fed in a tapered-cone round bale feeder. A summary of results are given in Table 2.
Hay required per cow was based on a dry matter intake equation which took into account cow body weight and net energy maintenance requirement. Cows in the cone bale feeder treatment had an increased ending weight, backfat depth and body condition score, but decreased hay consumption when compared to other treatments. Hay quality between treatments was similar. In this study, feeding method not only influenced the amount of hay fed, but cow performance as well. How? When hay is fed on the ground, a certain amount will be spread around and leaves will be shattered and trampled, leaving stems. The leaves of any plant have the highest levels of protein and energy, so we inadvertently lower the quality intake of the cattle. When this data was put into an economic model, the tapered-cone feeder lowered equipment cost, feeding time and overall wintering cost. Other studies have shown feeding losses as high as 45 percent when hay is fed on the ground versus in some type of restrictive feeding method. This loss would also include animal refusal due to other factors such as spoilage.
Work out of Michigan State University shows that the type of bale feeder will also influence feeding loss. In this study, cattle were allocated to treatments with one of four feeder designs: taperedcone, bale ring, cradle or trailer feeder. Hay waste reported as percentage of hay disappearance was 3.5, 6.1, 11.4 and 14.6, for cone, ring, trailer and cradle feeders respectively.
The take home message is this: round bale feeders reduce hay waste; the amount of reduction will vary by type. Round bale feeders can also help maintain the quality of hay during feeding by protecting it from trampling, which can in turn influence cow performance as indicated by the North Dakota State University trial. Remember good management will always pay.