With hay prices higher than most producers have seen in years, finding ways to spend less on wintering cows is more important than ever.  While the industry has paid a lot of attention to alternative and by-product feeds and on least cost ration formulations, managing the amount the cattle eat and minimizing hay wastage is often overlooked. There isn’t a lot that can be done to lower the cost of forage; however, there are steps that can be taken to make sure that every dollar goes to work feeding cattle and not wasted on the ground.
Type of Hay Feeders
When feeding baled hay, the type of feeder used can play a significant role in how much hay is wasted versus consumed by cows.  Research from Michigan has shown that the amount of hay wasted per day ranged from about 1 pound per day for a cone style feeder up to just over 4 pounds per day for a cradle style feeder.  Dr. Julie Walker, SDSU Beef Specialist, has written a more thorough review of the effects of hay feeder design on the amount of hay wasted on the following iGrow article Hay – Consume It or Waste It.
Limit Feeding
Providing free choice hay, while being a lower labor approach to feeding cows, can lead to significant losses due to waste and over-consumption, as high as 20%.  Limit feeding the cattle so they’re only consuming the amount needed to meet their nutritional requirements each day could significantly reduce the total amount of feedstuffs needed.  This works especially well when feeding silage based rations or if a total mixed ration containing by-product feeds or grains is fed.
It may seem strange to discuss feeding grains to beef cows during times of very high corn markets, but using grain to substitute for hay may make financial sense in some cases this year.  Because of the higher energy density of corn, about a pound of corn will substitute for 1.5 to 2 pounds of hay.  Given the extremely high hay markets, it may be profitable to feed corn rather than buy hay in the open market, especially if the hay must be trucked a considerable distance.  Cows do need at to eat at least 0.5% of body weight as hay per day to maintain rumen function.
Limiting the Access Time to the Hay Feeders
Not everyone is set up to feed a total mixed ration, and completely replacing all the hay feeders might not be a viable option either.  Another strategy that could help reduce the amount of hay that cattle waste is to limit the amount of time that they have access to hay feeders.  Researchers at Purdue allowed cows access to moderate quality grass-alfalfa hay for 4, 8, 12 or 24 hours a day.  The amount of hay disappearance was 37%, 18%, and 4% less for cows allowed 4, 8, and 12 hours access compared to the cattle given unlimited access to feed, with no difference in body condition or performance.
There are some important considerations to keep in mind before using either one of these limit feeding strategies:
  • Make sure all cattle have equal opportunities to consume the amount of feed required to meet their needs.
  • Cattle that need to gain weight, or that might not compete well with the rest of the herd aren’t good candidates for this type of program.  Cows that are in moderate to high body condition are much better suited to a limit-fed program, but they should be monitored closely to make sure that excessive condition loss doesn’t occur.
  • Mineral intake could be much higher in this system.  Producers may need to increase salt levels to control mineral supplement intake.
  • If possible, provide access to something such as a crop residue field where the cattle can increase their grazing time and satisfy their appetite.

Warren Rusche | SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist