Hay supplies were already going to be short this year, as folks with tillable ground swapped more acres for corn and other row crops. Then came the historic drought in the Southern Plains and Southwest that engulfed at least 25% of the nation’s beef cowherd.

The mass exodus of cows from the Southern Plains this summer may be followed by a second sell-off this fall if opportunities for fall forage evaporate, too.

“Many Southwestern cattle ranchers have totally run out of options and the hay situation through the mid-section of the U.S. has become colossal,” say analysts with the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS). “Hay brokers from Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas are beating the bushes as far as 1,000 miles away in search of any quality of bales to fill needs in parched areas. Delivered alfalfa has been quoted up to $300/ton,” they say.

So, whether or not you run cows in the drought areas, you’re impacted by it, but there are ways to reduce the impact.

Decrease hay needs

“We can reduce winter hay needs by almost a third by using two of these three strategies: feed an ionophore, limit-feed hay and reduce hay waste,” says David Lalman, Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension beef cattle specialist.

• Feed an ionophore. In a recent OSU study, cows receiving common prairie hay and 2.0 lbs./day of supplement (30% crude protein) with 200 mg/day of Rumensin® – the only ionophore labeled for use in breeding cows – gained 30 lbs. That’s about a half of one body condition score (BCS) over 58 days. The cost of feeding the ionophore was 2¢/day.

In previous research, Lalman says Rumensin in cow rations reduced feed intake by about 10% without affecting performance.

“In Texas, we’re looking at about $3/day to keep a cow,” says Ron Gill, Texas AgriLife Service Extension beef cattle specialist.
“Rumensin will improve feed efficiency by 10-15%. With the cost of rations today, it sure wouldn’t hurt to include it.”

• Limit-feeding hay. Upfront, Lalman explains limit-feeding isn’t a viable option for producers already facing the double whammy of thin cows and no forage, nor is it for older cows and heifers. For producers with cows of a BCS of at least 4-5, though, limit-feeding hay offers similar benefits associated with limit-feeding other rations to other classes of stock. It improves feed efficiency, increases digestibility and decreases waste.

Based on previous research, Lalman says giving cows access to hay for 6 hours/day – by fencing off hay feeders for example – rather than unlimited access, reduces intake by 20-25%.

If access can’t be restricted, Lalman suggests estimating the amount of hay cows require daily and then reducing it by 25%.

Across 85-90 days, Lalman says research indicates that cows limit-fed hay will gain less. If it’s a viable option, though, Lalman emphasizes the strategy means the opportunity to reduce hay needs by 25%.

• Reduce hay waste. Though Lalman is quick to point out that any type of hay feeder is more efficient than using none at all, the fact is that different types of the common bale ring feeders yield dramatically different levels of waste.

For instance, an open-bottom bale ring – no sheeting around the bottom – means about 21% of the hay put into it is wasted, according to OSU research. “Losing 21% of prairie hay that costs $150/ton gets expensive,” Lalman says.

Compare that to bale rings with a cone insert. Waste associated with those are about 5%. Just adding sheeting to the bottom of an open-bottom bale ring reduces waste from 21% to about 13%, Lalman says.

Bottom line, by using two of these three strategies, Lalman explains, “I’m confident we can get up to about 30% savings in hay.”

That’s before considering other basics and options that often sit on the shelf until necessity demands reconsideration.

Know, don’t guess

“If there was ever a year to test hay and other feeds, this is it,” says Dale Blasi, Kansas State University Extension beef cattle specialist.

Blasi suggests taking a composite sample of 10% of the large round bales from the same field – four cores/bale. He says to sample hay separately if it comes from obviously different parts of the field. Knowing the hay’s specific nutritional allows producers to build supplements more precisely and economically, Blasi says.

Likewise, Blasi suggests segregating cows and heifers based on nutritional need and matching them to the quality of feed available. For instance, he explains, “Feeding cows according to BCS is always a good idea. It takes more management, but segregation allows you to be more precise in meeting the nutritional needs of the cows, which gives you the opportunity to do so at less cost.”

Alternative feeds are worth considering, too, Blasi says. In his neck of the woods, folks are looking hard at things like ammoniated wheat straw and drought-damaged corn silage, in addition to standbys like distillers grains.

“Take a good inventory of what you have. Be realistic about what you’re going to have and account for waste,” Blasi says. “You could argue that with the number of cows liquidated this summer, there will be more feed available this fall. But my concern is what the winter is going to be like.”