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Is Hay Always Cheaper Than Corn?

Feeding cattle corn could cut costs this winter.

Cattle eat hay, especially beef cattle why they're dry during the winter. Any farm boy who's ever worked around cattle can tell you that. Well, John Johns thinks it's time for farm boys and cattlemen alike to learn a lesson.

Yes, cattle normally eat hay, especially dry, pregnant beef cattle, because it's usually an economical way to get them through the winter and maintain their body condition, says Johns, a University of Kentucky Animal Scientist. But this year all bets are off. With hay prices at $6 or more per small square bale, if you can find it, cattlemen are looking for another alternative. In an earlier issue (Indiana Prairie Farmer, December '07), Johns said one alternative would be to feed cattle whole shelled corn instead of hay. Usually considered too expensive to waste on pregnant, dry cows, the forage world is flipped upside down this year, due to last summer's lingering forage shortage.

In offering the suggestion, he notes that feeding whole shelled corn to beef cattle requires careful management. Otherwise, one animal more aggressive than another could get more than her fair share, and founder, meaning she overeats and produces negative effects in her body.

Here's the reasoning behind Johns suggestion that cattlemen consider whole shelled corn as an alternative this winter, if not other winters as well. "Nutrient –dense feeds such as grains, commodities and the like are cheaper per unit of nutrient compared to hay," he says. "Be sure and compare on a dry matter basis.

Johns points to tow separate feeding trials that illustrate his point. Fist, cows in three separate trials were fed 11.5 pounds of whole shelled corn plus 2 pounds of hay and 2.5 pounds of pelleted supplement, containing protein and required vitamins per day. The 2 pounds of hay is basically enough roughage to stimulate the rumen, he notes. Another group of cows in each trial received the more traditional diet, simply 30 pounds of hay per day.

When the study was over after calving, the cows on corn lost 53 pounds, but the cows on hay lost 72 pounds. Birth weight for calves fed corn was 102 pounds, vs. 96 pounds for cows fed hay. Here's the kicker: weaning weight for cows off cows fed corn was 634 pounds, vs. 613 pounds for calves from cows fed hay. Conception rate during the following breeding season was 91% for the shelled corn group, and 84% for cows on hay.


Here are Johns' conclusions:

  • Corn-based rations may be cheaper when hay prices get high
  • Even if hay is cheaper, what is your goal (in performance?)
  • Do we want to minimize costs, or maximize profits?
  • What is the value of a 21 pound increase in weaning weight and a 7% increase in conception rate?

What's more, right now hay isn't cheaper. Johns calculated costs based on the three-trial corn vs. hay feeding experiment. Using the corn diet, he estimated he could keep a cow during the 130-day winter period for $1.50 per day, or $195 total. Using hay he would need to spend $1.88 per day, or $244.40 per cow to get through the winter.

Here's the ultimate kicker, though. He based corn price on purchase from a local feed dealer, at $4.90 per bushel. Obviously, you would likely price corn less if you raise your own corn since your option wouldn't be selling it at $4.90 per bushel. And he priced hay at $125 per ton. At 60-65 pound small square bales, that's only $4 per square bale. While describing a 60-65 pound square bale as costing 'only $4 might seem ludicrous in a normal year, this isn't a normal year. Odds are that unless you have your own forage, you'll have a hard time holding hay costs that low. If you do, it may be low quality hay that needs more supplementation.

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