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Reducing Hay Waste This Winter

Written by Steve Paisley

By By Steve Paisley, UW Beef Extension Specialist

When hay is expensive and difficult to find, reducing hay loss becomes increasingly important.

Managing hay feeding waste can definitely reduce the total winter hay needs, while also making spring clean-up a lot more bearable. Discussions of winter feeding methods need to be kept in context – not all methods work for all operations. Ease of feeding, convenience, labor required, and cost versus return all need to be considered.

For smaller producers, and small groups of cattle, large round bales create a problem. How do you deliver the correct amount of feed daily, while minimizing waste? Early methods of dropping an entire bale in the pen, without a feeder, resulted in considerable waste. Studies done in the ‘70s and ‘80s estimated 35 to 45 percent of the bale was wasted. Round bale “ring”-type feeders reduced this amount considerably. These traditional ring feeders were more recently improved by adding an additional cone-shaped framework in the middle of the feeder that elevates the round bale. These “cone” feeders create a separation between the bale and the animal, so that less hay is pulled out of the bale and trampled, reducing waste compared with ring, trailer and cradle feeders as shown in the table.  

For larger groups of cattle, where feed is delivered daily, bale processors have definitely made it easier to handle and uniformly deliver hay to cattle. If you feed round bales on the ground, round bale processors seem to reduce the amount of waste by three to 10 percent compared with rolling the bales out manually, as shown in the following table.  Only two studies are reported here, and it is very difficult to estimate the amount of hay that is delivered and not consumed.

Feeding cattle in bunks also reduced the amount of waste by five percent. Although feed bunks may reduce waste, they also create additional management issues such as having to feed in the same spot every day and providing adequate bunk space to allow all animals to eat at once. However, bunks also make it easier to deliver supplements, grains and byproducts that may help to reduce overall feed costs.

Items that are not included in this estimate include any potential reductions in time and labor, as well as improved accuracy and consistency in delivering feed. As with nearly all purchases, investments made in equipment become easier to budget when you can spread the expense over a greater number of cows. The success of bale processors is also related to the type of processor and the quality of forage. Additional processing of coarse, low quality forages should improve utilization and reduce waste, while high quality grass hay and alfalfa may be less affected by processing.  

An additional method of reducing hay waste with bale feeders is limiting the amount of time that cows have access to the bale feeder. The University of Illinois has conducted a series of studies looking at the effect of time restriction to bale feeders on winter dry and lactating cow performance. In these studies, the hay offered was a medium to high-quality hay, (57 to 63 percent TDN), and cows are primarily Simmental/Angus crossbred commercial cows.
It’s important to note that limiting access to bale feeders requires: 1) a medium to high quality forage; 2) close observation of the cattle to make sure they are maintaining weight and condition; 3) adequate space for all cows to have access to the hay during the allotted periods; and 4) the potential for sorting the cows to remove the timid or poor performing cows. Not all cows are suited to time-restricted feeding programs.

When teamed with forage analysis, ration balancing, hay budgeting and feeding management, managing hay waste is an additional tool to more efficiently manage winter nutrition, one of the largest expenses for cow/calf producers. Other tools include testing hay, balancing rations and using co-product feeds both as a supplement or forage substitute to reduce winter feed costs while maintaining cow condition.