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Don't gamble with your hay bales

red tractor with round hay bale
WEIGH HAY: Getting accurate hay bale weights is another way to take the gamble out of managing hay.
Dairy Team: Take some risk out of managing your forage inventory.

By Jennifer Blazek

Haying season is in full swing in Wisconsin. While winter is a ways off yet, it is never too early — or late — for sizing up your hay inventory.

While producing high-quality dry hay is a gamble every year, feeding hay does not have to be. By doing a little extra legwork, you can take some of the risk out of managing your forage inventory. Planning ahead, determining accurate hay bale weights, and using caution when buying hay will work toward increasing your bottom line and reducing costs.

How much hay do you need?
Reduce the gamble by planning ahead. Determining the amount of hay you need to feed your livestock during the year helps you maintain a forage inventory based on your actual needs. While this number is still an estimate, it reduces the risk that you’ll need to buy extra hay in the middle of winter when prices are high, or keeps you from buying excess hay you don’t need.

Dry matter intake is your first step in planning. There are many factors to consider with dry matter intake. First is the species of the animal. Dairy cattle can consume between 3% and 4.5% of their body weight in dry matter. Beef cattle, however, only can consume between 1% and 3% of their body weight in dry matter. Dry matter intakes decrease as the animal matures and gains in weight. Digestibility and energy level of the feed also impact intake. Intake is lower when forages fill up the rumen quickly and are less digestible. Intake increases when feeds high in energy and digestibility are processed quickly.

A quick calculation is all that is needed to determine the hay necessary for a ration for an animal. Multiply the animal’s weight and the percent dry matter intake; this is the animal’s daily intake. For an as-fed basis, add back in 10% water weight for hay. Then multiply the daily intake with the number of days of feeding; this is the animal’s intake for the entire time of feeding. To get intake for the whole herd or group of animals for the entire feeding period, multiply the number of animals by the number you calculated for one animal.

Don’t forget to take into account waste. Refusal, trampling and environmental damage are all ways hay can be wasted before or after feeding. Depending on your feeding and hay storage systems, you can plan on 10% to 50% waste. Add this amount onto your forage needs to get a more accurate picture of the amount of hay you will need.

How much hay do you have?
Getting accurate hay bale weights is another way to take the gamble out of managing hay. This requires a stop to “eyeballing” hay weights. Everyone does it. You estimate the weight of a bale by its size, the settings on the baler, the type of forage, but primarily you are estimating based on visually assessing the bale. In our Hay Bale Weight Project, we found that some people do better than others, and their success doesn’t always come down to expertise or experience. Neither experts nor longtime farmers were able to consistently eyeball the correct weights of hay bales. Even for farmers who produced their own hay, we found a lot of variability in their estimates of hay bale weight and the actual weight. On average, both farmers and experts (Extension agents and agronomists) were about 130 pounds off — above and below — the actual weights of the bales.

By weighing your hay now, you can save money later. One hundred and thirty pounds adds up in extra cost or lost feed potential. Weighing every bale in a load can be impractical for most, but even getting a truckload weighed and taking the average per bale provides you with more accurate numbers than eyeballing.

Considerations when buying hay
Hay has been plentiful over the last couple of years, driving prices dwn. As of the early May Hay Market Report, dairy-quality hay was averaging $181 per ton for large square bales. Into summer, it continues to be a buyer’s market for hay. If you find yourself needing additional hay stocks or determine purchasing hay is cheaper than your cost to produce it, here are some considerations to reduce your risk before you make that hay purchase.

Don’t buy hay sight unseen, if you can help it. While sellers may provide you all the information you need, you still want to make sure you inspect the hay for yourself. Go with your gut.

Consider where the hay was stored. This is an important point, because it ultimately affects not only feed quality and palatability, but also monetary value of the hay. Hay should always be stored under cover. A study from the University of Minnesota found that covering bales reduced dry matter loss by about 6 percentage units. The University of Illinois estimates that the storage method you use for hay bales could result in a less than 5% to more than 50% dry matter loss from weathering. The increase in moisture and bacteria growth in uncovered bales decreases the nutritional analysis. Regardless of the type of bale, relative feed values go down and the variability of nutritional content and palatability within the bale increases.

Ask for a forage analysis. The only way to ensure you are purchasing the feed quality you want is to have an analysis done. Many sellers will provide the results of a forage test, but if not, just ask. The benefit of the analysis is you know what you are paying for. Even a basic forage test will tell you the relative forage quality, dry matter, moisture, ash, and macro and micro minerals.

Get hay weighed. Our research has shown that, on average, eyeballing hay doesn’t work. In general, sellers overestimate and buyers underestimate the weight of bales. It is important to get an unbiased weight for bales by taking the load to get weighed. Not weighing hay before buying it means you are gambling on how much hay you are actually buying, increasing your risk for spending more money and getting less hay.

Managing hay shouldn’t have to be a gamble. Regardless of where hay prices are, these tips will help you prevent risking your bottom line when it comes to feeding your cattle.

If you would like more information or to read the fact sheet about the Hay Bale Weighing Project referenced in this article, contact your local Extension office or the University of Wisconsin Extension Dairy Team website.

Blazek is the Dane County Extension dairy and livestock agent. This column is provided by the University of Wisconsin Extension Dairy Team.

TAGS: Forage Forage
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