Here in the Southeast, we have to feed hay for about five months of the year. Fortunately, by the time mid-March or early April hits, our cows can once again be grazing in the pastures. For over forty percent of the year, our cows will need to eat hay, but in other areas of the United States, that percentage of the year is much higher. When you figure that in the west or northeastern United States, cattle must eat hay for almost half the year, you realize that minimizing waste can save the farmer big bucks.
We've had years when, due to drought, available hay bales were limited and expensive, and we wanted to make sure that every edible bit of hay was eaten by an animal rather than trampled in the mud. Here are five things we've learned through the years to help minimize losses of winter feed due to waste.
1. Dry hay = Less Waste
Hay must stay dry to stay edible. Our goal here on the farm is to cut the highest quality hay and get it in the barn without it ever getting rained on. Sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn't, but that's our ideal.
Start with good-quality hay that was rolled very dry. Next, store it someplace out of the weather. If you don't have a barn in which you can store your hay, cover it with a tarp. By the way, we've found that it's better to set your rolls in one long row with long narrow tarps covering them, than it is to mound them up and try to cover a mountain of hay rolls.
Try to store your hay up out of the dirt. If you can put down a layer of gravel in your hay barn, that is ideal. However, if you can't, you can use old tires to get the hay rolls off the bare ground. Contact with the bare ground means that the bottom of the hay roll may get wet and moldy. However, that's not the worst of it. The moisture can rot the strings holding the hay rolls together. This means that as you lift a roll of hay the whole thing can collapse, leaving you with nothing but a large mound of hay on the ground.
Cows are ruminants, so they can manage on poorer quality hay than a horse can. However, when you feed a hay roll or bale that is partially moldy, they have to root through more of the hay to find edible bits. This means that more of the roll is wasted as they scatter it.
2. Feed Lower Quality Hay First
This year, our barns could not hold all of the hay that was cut. We had to store the lower quality stuff outdoors. This feed should be fed first for a couple reasons. First, the earlier it is fed, the less it is damaged by the weather. Second, our cows get spoiled to good hay and, if that's what they are used to, they will turn their noses up at the poorer quality stuff.
3. Use Hay Rings
Cows are not all that bright. When they get done eating on a hay roll for the day, they will bed down on the hay that is on the ground near the bale. They like the dry comfort of that hay. However, after they've lain on the hay, they don't want to eat it. Feeding hay rolls or bales in a ring feeder minimizes this. The cows can't destroy a hay roll and then lay around on the hay that they scattered. The middle of the roll stays intact longer, leading to less waste. Hay rings definitely pay for themselves after just a season or two by minimizing waste hay.
4. Feed Smaller Amounts of Hay More Frequently
Feeding smaller amounts of feed every day or two will lead to less waste as the cattle eat more of what is out there. This is especially true if you don't have hay rings. When you give cows access to rolls or bales of hay, only feed enough to last them a day. You may have to feed much more often, but the cows won't waste as much hay, trampling it or bedding down on it. The University of Iowa found that cattle need as much as one-fourth more hay if you put out a four-day supply as when you feed a one-day supply if you aren't using hay rings.
5. Feed in a Well-Drained Spot
If the ground in your area is frozen all winter, this may not be as much of an issue, but here in our area, the ground doesn't freeze solid and stay that way all winter. Most of the winter, we are dealing with copious amounts of mud in the field. We move our hay feeders all over the fields to keep the cows from pounding up one area into a messy, muddy soup. This keeps the hay rolls drier, longer.
Remember that a penny saved is a penny earned. Make your farm more profitable by using these five tips to lower the percentage of hay that is wasted on your farm.