Winter hay feeding methods to consider before spring arrives

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For many livestock producers, the grazing season is about to come to an end and it will be time to start feeding hay. There are several different methods of feeding large round bales of hay, with advantages and disadvantages of each.

Maybe one of the most common practices I see is the use of round bale rings. Besides the reduction in losses, bale rings allow a producer to haul out enough hay for multiple days at a time. This can be convenient for the many producers who have off the farm jobs.

Bale rings can also be moved to different areas throughout the winter to prevent the destruction of the pasture fields and to help spread out the nutrients as well. Bale rings have their disadvantages as well.

Leveling the ground

The ground right around the rings will be tracked up and will likely need to be leveled out in the spring with a drag and it may also be necessary to reseed some of the areas. Another option for winter feeding is the use of a heavy-use feed pad.

A feed pad provides a stable surface that can be used as a high traffic area. It reduces soil erosion that can be caused by winter feeding. The use of a feed pad allows a producer to set out more hay at a time and less hay will be wasted since it will be on a solid surface.

However, the feed pad will have to be cleaned, possibly multiple times throughout the winter, and then the manure and hay waste will have to be spread when conditions allow. Having the manure to spread can be both positive and negative.

You can take the nutrients to the fields that need them the most, but it also requires time, fuel, and causes wear and tear on machinery. The method that I prefer to use on my own farm is unrolling round bales.

This can be done a few different ways. You can use a bale unroller attachment on a tractor, push them out by hand, or set them on an edge of a hill and let them unroll on their own.

Protecting the ground

A bale unroller on a tractor works great on dry or frozen ground, but will tear up more ground when field conditions are wet.

Setting rows of bales in the field in the summer or fall and surrounding them with a strand electric fence is another option. The fence can be lowered and the bale can be pushed out.

I have been doing this for the past few winters and have been able to feed in areas that are more difficult to get to in the winter months. Another advantage of this method to me is the savings of fuel and wear and tear on the tractor, as well as not having to plug it in and allow it time to warm up when temperatures are very low.

The third method I mentioned is letting the bales unroll down a hill. This works well for producers who have hills large enough for the bale to completely unroll.

Just make sure the bale is set in the direction to which it will unroll to avoid taking out fences or sending them into the woods or onto a road. To determine which direction the bale needs to go to be unrolled, look at the edge of the bale and see which way the stems are pointing.

Spreading nutrients

That is the direction the bale needs to go. Some of the major advantages of this method include being able to spread nutrients over more acreage which will improve your soil and cut the cost of commercial fertilizer, giving the herd more space and reducing competition for hay among the cows, and it also gives calves a place to lay out of the mud or snow.

This method does have its disadvantages as well. There is more hay wasted as it is tramped into the ground, especially when the ground is not frozen.

Also, hay must be hauled out every day which can be inconvenient for producers who also have off the farm jobs. The last winter-feeding method I am going to mention is leaving bales set in the field where they were baled, then allowing the forages to grow back throughout the rest of the summer and fall.

The cattle can be turned in later in the fall or winter and can graze the stockpiled forage as well as the hay. To increase efficiency, use electric fence and step-in posts to only allow cattle into a small portion of the field at a time.

There will be more hay wasted when using this method, but it will save the time since the hay will not have to be moved off the field or hauled back out to be fed. It could also cut fertilizer costs since most of the nutrients will be returned to the field.

Think ahead

If you are going to make hay on the field the following year, you may want to avoid turning the cattle into it while conditions are wet.

In conclusion, there is probably not a perfect way to feed hay to your cattle or other livestock in the winter months. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method and you have to choose whatever is going to work for you with the resources you have available and the amount of time your schedule allows.

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