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Keep losses low when feeding hay

A few simple tactics throughout the season can put more hay where it belongs — in cattle.

December 20, 2022

3 Min Read
Simmental steer with a mouthful of hay
MANAGE FEEDING: From choosing the type of feeder you use, to sorting out the bullies, a few simple tactics can put more feed in your cattle, more pounds on the hoof and more cash in your wallet.2ndLookGraphics/Getty Images

You have options when feeding cattle to cut hay waste and lower costs while boosting animal behavior and performance.

Charlie Ellis, University of Missouri Extension specialist, says farmers can choose from several methods to reduce waste based on their preferences, labor availability and climate.

Ellis offers four basics for maximizing hay use:

1. Right size, right place. It’s important to match the feeder size to herd size, and use the right size feeder. Place feed on a pad or elevated surface and in a well-drained area.

2. Boot out the bullies. Cull aggressive cattle that push out other animals and prevent them from getting their fair share.

3. Don’t let food go to waste. Make animals clean up most of the hay before you deliver more.

4. Feed hay stored outside first. This reduces spoilage and improves palatability.

When looking at ways to deliver hay to cattle, Ellis sees unrolling bales as the “bed and breakfast” of the hay world. He notes unrolling hay across a large area instead of feeding it at a bunk or ring offers advantages. Unrolled bales give “boss” cows and timid cows equal access to feed.

The method also reduces hoof damage and compaction in the feeding area, can help overseed pastures with legumes and distributes nutrients back into the ground.

Another option is to process bales. The approach encourages cows to eat low- to medium-quality forages. Processing allows mixing and dilution of forages of different qualities, including high-nitrate forages. But there are drawbacks.

Ellis says processors chop forages into smaller particles that dissolve easier in the rumen. This can leave cows feeling hungry and result in higher hay intake, which can push up feed costs. And he notes processors cost $20,000 to $25,000.

A look at cone or open feeders

Ellis says different styles of bale feeders are more efficient than others. Feeder and stocking rates determine if cone or open feeders are right for each operation.

He says cone feeders are most efficient. Sheeted rings waste less than open rings, which he notes are the most wasteful of feeder designs. Producers can also restrict access time with feeders to improve body score counts, increase milk production and reduce hay waste. Finding the right feeder design improves feeder payback.

When limiting time for feeding, Ellis advises providing at least 30 inches of bunk space per cow when bunk feeding, and providing one bale per 10 cows when ring feeding. Dividing cattle into groups based on age and “pecking order” can help with feed intake. He also recommends feeding at the same time each day.

As for free access? Ellis says this encourages waste, and studies show feeding daily instead reduces food costs and waste. Feed more often and waste less.

Choice of the feeding ring also matters. There is less waste when feeding square bales in open rings rather than large bales in an open ring. Large round, unrolled bales fed in rings have 45% waste and are least efficient, according to MU research.

When buying hay

Ellis offers a few considerations when buying hay:

  • Test the hay to make sure it meets the nutritional needs of your herd.

  • Know the hay’s age, how it was stored and how it was wrapped.

  • Buy hay by the ton.

Learn more in MU Extension’s publication “Reducing losses when feeding hay to beef cattle” at extension.missouri.edu, or visit the Alliance for Grass Renewal website at grasslandrenewal.org.

Source: MU Extension

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