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The Costs of Hay Waste Add Up

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Hay production in the United States is a big business with big numbers. Take a look at the hay production numbers and values for the United States, Texas and Oklahoma (Table 1).

Unfortunately, much of this value is not captured due to feeding and storage losses, which add up to $3 billion nationwide. Of this nationwide loss, Texas and Oklahoma's combined share would amount to $270 million annually. Ouch! This does not count losses in nutrient content due to putting up hay that is too mature. Where is this river of money going, and where do I put the dam to stem the flow?

First, look at moisture content prior to baling. Baling hay above a 20 percent moisture level results in dry matter losses of up to 16 percent from heating, which increases mold content and decreases digestibility (see "Is Your Hay Cut Right but Baled Wrong," NF Ag News and Views, January 2003). Hold off baling until moisture content drops to less than 20 percent for small square bales, 18 percent for round bales and 16 percent for large square bales. Baling at these moisture levels should keep storage losses due to high moisture content at around 5 percent.

Next, look at storage loss due to bale weathering. The photo shows a bale that has experienced weathering down to a depth of 12 inches. This would be a weathering loss of greater than 50 percent of the baled hay volume! This is extreme, but on a 5-foot by 6-foot bale, a 2-inch weathered depth would equal an 11 percent loss, 4 inches equals a 21 percent loss, 6 inches equals a 31 percent loss and 8 inches equals a 40 percent weathered loss. Cattle will pick through some of this damaged hay, but much will be refused and returned to the ground as organic matter without being processed by the animal. To avoid this loss, begin with the bale itself. Make a tight, dense bale that will hold its shape. If it's stored outside, some weathering and thatch formation on the outside of the bale is good because it aids in water shedding. However, coarse-stemmed hay such as sorghum sudan or Johnsongrass will not form a dense thatch layer as well as fine-stemmed, leafy hays like bermudagrass, nor do they produce as dense a bale, which subjects coarse-stemmed hays to higher weathering loss.

When storing bales outside, expect losses of 5 percent to 50 percent. Notice the mud in the photo. Pay attention to your storage site, and try to imagine how it will look after 2 inches of rain along with a week of daily travel using a truck or tractor to retrieve bales. Avoiding direct contact with the ground by placing bales on some type of pad can drop losses to 3 percent to 35 percent. Combine a pad with a cover for the top of the bale and losses go down to 2 percent to 10 percent. The variation in percent dry matter loss is dependent on the amount of rainfall and storage time. Higher rainfall with longer storage time would cause higher losses. When storing bales outside, place bales butt to butt in north to south rows at least 3 feet apart to maximize wind flow and sunlight penetration.

How are you feeding hay? When feeding hay, an acceptable range of loss to aim for is 3 percent to 6 percent. In poorly managed situations, this can go up to 60 percent. If you are feeding on the ground without a bale ring, move the feeding site around. Place bales on well-drained spots to avoid bogging and unnecessary pasture damage. If you make the decision to feed at only one well-drained location, you may want to create a permanent feeding pad for bale placement or feed your well-weathered hay first, which will create a thatch layer that can be used for placement of higher-quality bales later. Try to feed hay in quantities to match herd demand with adequate feeding space. This shortens the time that hay is consumed and reduces trampling wastes. If you need to put large quantities of hay out at a time, use a bale ring or some sort of feeder to restrict access and reduce feeding wastes.

How do all of these costs add up? Let's start with a ton of hay and place a cost of production on it of $30, $15 in fertilizer and $15 in harvest costs, and see how a 25 percent loss adds up:
(Base value $30/ton or $0.015/pound)

  • Baled at too high moisture content - 5% loss = 100 lbs. or $1.50
  • Improper outside storage and 4" weathering loss - 10% = 200 lbs. or $3.00
  • Poorly managed feeding method - 10% loss = 200 lbs. or $3.00
  • Total per ton = 500 lbs. or $7.50
  • Adjusted hay cost, including wastes = $37.50/T


Putting this in context, an 1,100-pound cow will consume about 30 pounds of dry matter per day valued at $30/T equals $0.45/day. To compensate for the 25 percent loss, an additional 7.5 lbs./head/day will need to be offered to avoid underfeeding. The 37.5 lbs. now cost $0.018/lb. to pay for the 25 percent loss in baling, storage and feeding, giving a total per head per day cost of $0.71. Some loss is unavoidable, but excessive loss is giving money away.

Finally, put up good-quality hay to begin with. This will lessen or, in some cases, eliminate the need for supplemental feeding, improve dry matter intake and reduce animal refusal.