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Efficiently feeding hay to cattle

Black cattle in a barn eating hay.

Whether there is an excess of hay or a shortage in your system, efficiently feeding your hay can drastically affect the success of your operation.

Hay is expensive, even if you make your own. Avoiding waste can mean you don’t have to buy hay and could mean you have excess hay you can sell. Either way, using your hay efficiently results in more money in the long run.

Hay storage

Storing hay indoors is the best option for avoiding spoilage. But if you cannot keep all of your hay inside, other strategies can also help reduce spoilage. Reducing spoilage reduces waste, so it is important to remember that the outer portion of a bale contains a large proportion of the total hay in the bale.

  • The outer six inches of a six-foot round bale contains 25% of the hay in the bale.
  • The outer six inches of a five-foot round bale contains 35% of the hay in the bale.
  • Net wrap can help shed more water compared to twine or plastic string.
  • B-wrap® can reduce spoilage and help maintain quality.
  • Stacking hay can help protect bales from water.
  • Plan so you can feed your outside stored hay first.
  • If you have to buy hay, ask if the seller can store the hay inside until you need it.

Limit access time to round bale feeders

When given free choice access, cattle waste a significant amount of the hay available. Round bale feeders are a staple of feeding hay, but producers should consider limiting access to the feeders to reduce waste.

  • In general, cattle waste (remove but do not consume) about 25% of each bale fed in a round bale feeder.
  • Limiting cattle to 8-12 hours of access to the round bale feeder in a 24-hour window can reduce waste to only 10%.
  • Ideally, create enough space for all cattle to eat at the same time.
  • Limiting access is dependent on reliably keeping cattle away from the round bale feeders.

Limit feed in a bunk or on frozen ground

Limiting feed on a per head basis is best done with the help of a nutritionist to ensure your cattle maintain the proper body condition and meet their nutrient requirements. Success with limit-feeding is entirely dependent on having adequate bunk space.

  • For mature cows, provide two linear feet per head to minimize competition at the bunk and create a uniform group.
  • When feeding mature cows on frozen ground, distribute feed to provide at least two linear feet per head of space.
  • Processing or grinding hay is the most efficient method for limit-feeding, but rolling out bales on frozen ground is also an option.
  • Monitor body condition scores and adjust feed accordingly to maintain cows at a body condition of 5/9 and heifers at a body condition of 6/9.
  • Match feed quality and amount to the gestation period of each group as nutrient requirements change.

Test your hay

Measuring your forage quality allows you to target nutritional goals more effectively by matching forages to animal requirements. This targeted approach improves efficiency and gives insight into the need for supplementation. Work with your nutritionist to develop the most efficient plan.

Author: Joe Armstrong, DVM, Extension educator, cattle production systems

Reviewed in 2021

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