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Good Hay - A Good Deal This Winter

Posted Oct. 1, 2008

High feed prices have many cattlemen concerned about what to feed this winter. Many think that hay is overpriced and all supplements are too expensive to feed. If this is your situation, now is the time to develop a least-cost winter feeding program.

A least-cost winter supplementation program should be designed around the nutrient requirements of your cattle and the most economical source of nutrients that will meet these requirements - with a few exceptions. In many situations, high quality hay can replace most or all of the need for supplemental feed and may be the cheapest way to feed your cattle this winter.

The type and level of supplementation that works for your operation may be limited by many factors, but the nutrient composition of the hay (or standing forage) you plan to feed is one of the most important. In order to achieve a least-cost, forage-based supplementation program, it is critical to know the nutrient composition of the forage. A forage analysis is inexpensive and will quickly pay for itself when developing a winter feeding program. Once you know the nutrient composition of the forage, deficiencies can be calculated, allowing you to select the most economical supplement. Hay that meets all of the requirements for your cattle will eliminate the need for supplementation. Keep in mind that a cow's nutrient requirements will vary with stage and level of production, mature size, body condition and environmental factors.

If you are buying hay, you can afford to pay a lot more than you might think for a high quality hay, due to high feed costs. Table 1 compares the value of good quality hay that does not need supplement to average quality hay that would require supplementation. For instance, if you are feeding a 1,200-pound lactating cow Hay A, which costs $50 per ton, and supplementing 20 percent range cubes, which are $260 per ton, you could afford to pay up to $110 per ton for Hay B and still meet her nutrient requirements (Table 1).

If you raised your own hay and it will require supplementation, evaluate your supplemental feed costs. Depending on the price and availability of high quality hay, it may be more economical to buy the better hay and sell your hay at fair market value. If that is not an option or you have standing forage, compare the cost of available supplements on a price per pound of limiting nutrient basis. Be sure to consider handling and storage limitations when selecting a supplement.

If you are limited to feeding cubes on the ground, alfalfa hay can be an economical supplement in many instances. Table 2 shows the potential value of alfalfa hay compared to 20 percent crude protein range cubes at different prices. Currently, 20 percent cubes are over $250 per ton, which means you can pay at least $207 per ton for good quality alfalfa. According to the Oklahoma Hay Report (Aug. 28, 2008), good and premium quality alfalfa hay is selling for less than $180 per ton, making it an economical choice. It is important to note that these examples do not take into account hay wastage and comparisons are for 20 percent crude protein range cubes as a supplement. Individual comparisons should be made for available supplements that fit your situation. Also, hay and supplement prices as well as the costs associated with hauling, storing and feeding will vary depending on your situation. Be sure to include these when developing a winter feeding program for your operation.

Feeding high quality hay may not work in all situations, and each operation will have a unique set of circumstances. If you have questions about a least-cost winter feeding program, contact a Noble Research Institute livestock consultant or your local Extension agent for more information.