When it comes to feeding hay, the simplest economic advice is: don’t.

Hay costs tend to be the single most significant portion of winter feed cost for cows. Non-pasture feed costs tend to be the heftiest portion of the annual cost of carrying cows.

According to a study by Kevin Dhuyvetter and Kevin Herbel at Kansas State University, feed costs (pasture and non-pasture) represented about 47.2% of the $487/cow annual production costs in 2012 (Kansas Farm Management Assoc-iation data). It was 48.1% in 2007-2011. Of the $487/cow annual feed cost, 30% ($147) was pasture cost.

Yet, some producers appear to be feeding more hay rather than less as time goes on, even when considering the vagaries of drought.

In Oklahoma, for example, Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University (OSU) Extension livestock marketing specialist, says that “other” hay production per cow has more than doubled since 1974.

Up front, Peel explains the ratio of “other” hay to cows is a crude measure, but it has meaning in Oklahoma where basically the only hay fed to beef cows is of that category, and hay imports tend to balance with hay exports over time.

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Between 1974 and 1983, there was 0.9 ton/cow of “other” hay produced in Oklahoma, he says. Between 2004 and 2013, there were 2.08 tons/cow produced.

Whether or not the specific ratio has use in other states, the questions it begs are certainly relevant.

First is the question of cow size relative to the environment.

“In Oklahoma, the ratio points to artificially modifying the environment to fit the cows rather than fitting the cows to the environment,” says David Lalman, OSU Extension beef cattle specialist. “We’re using more hay to cushion grazing management. The ratio is an indicator that we’re moving from a lower-input system to one of higher inputs.”

In other words, Lalman explains stocking rates are increasing with cow size and genetic power. In turn, feeding more hay enables the increased stocking rates.

“We have all of this genetic power in these cows for milk and muscle, increased visceral organ mass and increased energy requirements for maintenance,” Lalman says. “Without feeding more, there would be more reproductive failure.”

Instead, using data from Southwest SPA (Standardized Performance Analysis), Lalman explains the reproductive rate – calves weaned per cow exposed – has hovered around 82% for the past two decades in Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico.

 

Reducing hay waste

The next question revolves around how much hay fed to cows is actually consumed by them.

“I don’t think round bale technology is inherently evil,” Peel says with a chuckle. “But it has subsidized sloppy management to a greater extent than we give it credit for.”

The now industry-standard big round bale began supplementing production of small square bales in the 1970s. Especially when corn was $2/bu. and hay routinely cost $50-$60/ton, the convenience and labor savings were too much to ignore. A single person could harvest, bale, stack and feed big round bales, rather than the two or three workers associated with small bales. The added cost of large round bales came in the form of about 20% waste.

Consequently, Lalman explains, “Anything you can do to reduce feeding round bales, reduces waste and cuts back on hay cost.”

Based on research at OSU and Michigan State University, Lalman explains a solid sheet around the bottom wall of a circular bale feeder can reduce hay waste by 8%. Add a cone mechanism that keeps the bale centered in the feeder and another 8% can be saved.

The other area of significant waste savings when feeding round bales comes with restricting cow access, Lalman says.

For producers with cows in a body condition score (BCS) of at least four or five, Lalman explains 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 six hours each day – fencing off hay feeders as an example – rather than unlimited access, reduces intake by 15%-25% depending on hay quality.

If access can’t be restricted, Lalman suggests estimating the amount of hay cows require daily and then reducing it by 20%, again, depending on hay quality.

Across 85-90 days, Lalman says research indicates that cows limit-fed hay will gain less weight if the hay is excellent quality; and may lose 20-40 lbs., or about half of a BCS, if the hay is average to below-average quality.

With both reduced access and improved ring feeders, Lalman stresses the need to make cows clean up the hay delivered. Think of it like slick-bunk management in feedlots where the goal is delivering only as much feed as will be consumed before the next feeding.

More than anything, though, Lalman emphasizes, “The biggest thing is grazing management and stockpiling forage so there is less need to feed hay. I still think there is a lot of opportunity for us to be better graziers.”

In fact, a producer friend of Peel’s tells him, “Anytime I roll out a round bale, I ask myself where I failed in my grazing management.”

 

Prices bear watching

“We still hold to the premise that it’s generally cheaper to graze than to feed hay. But in an area like ours where hay is predominately harvested as large round bales and is endophyte-infected tall fescue, the hay market tends to be very local and regional,” says Jeff Lehmkuhler, University of Kentucky Extension beef cattle specialist. “Also, because there is intense land competition, you might be able to purchase hay and feed it cheaper than you can graze.”

Lease rates for pasture and hay ground in his neck of the woods have doubled in recent years. Still, in a normal production year, Lehmkuhler says you can find all the hay you want for $60-$80/ton. He believes the price remains so low because hay producers don’t account for the true cost of production, and the package form of large round bales makes shipping great distances too costly.

Even when hay is more expensive because of short supplies, Lehmkuhler explains, “Forage costs matter less to many of our producers than being able to manage a limited labor resource.” As many of Kentucky’s cow-calf producers have full-time jobs off the farm, they constitute the only labor source.

Still, it’s hard to argue against extending the stocking capacity through improved grazing management rather than subsidized feed.

“Are my cows the right size? Is my grazing management at the right level, or does it need to change?” These are questions that Peel encourages producers to ask themselves.

“Our really profitable cow-calf producers just don’t feed much hay,” Lalman says.

 

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