Manage feeders to minimize hay waste


SALEM, Ohio - It’s like filling your gas tank, then punching a whole in it and draining one-third onto the ground.

Compare it to buying three tons of seed corn and dumping an entire ton on a pile of rocks, or buying a gallon of Roundup and immediately dumping at least one quart.

All three waste money and resources.

Most cattlemen wouldn’t dream of throwing away one-third of their inputs, yet that is exactly what’s happening when livestock are allowed unlimited access to hay in bales of all sizes.

Expense. Livestock trample and waste 25 percent to 45 percent of hay when fed with no restrictions, according to Ohio State University research, and more is wasted through poor storage methods.

Feeding hay to cattle is expensive, especially this year when quality hay is at a premium, said Stephen Boyles, an Ohio State University extension beef specialist.

His figures show hay costs 2-7 cents per pound of dry matter, a number usually more than double the cost for the same amount of nutrients from pasture.

Expenses have been driven higher because hay production requires a large investment in equipment and labor to make and feed.

In a Michigan trial, the difference in waste between four feeder designs was enough to add an additional cow to the herd from every eight already eating – and wasting - hay.

“The only hay that does any good is the hay that gets inside the cow,” said Dan Buskirk, a Michigan State University animal scientist.

The right feeder. Perhaps one of the biggest factors in reducing hay waste is selecting the right feeder.

Buskirk and a team of researchers evaluated four round bale feeder designs – cone, ring, cradle and trailer – on hay consumption and waste.

Researchers used free-choice second cutting hay, stored inside, and a herd of pregnant beef cows averaging 1,350 pounds each.

Cows ate most (30.6 pounds per cow) with a trailer feeder; less with a cradle-style feeder; and roughly four pounds less each in a ring and cone feeder.

Though they ate less, cows also wasted less – about a pound -  with the ring and cone feeders.

Trailer and cradle feeders showed the biggest wastes, at roughly four pounds per cow.

Daily intake was highest with the trailer feeder, at 27.1 pounds per cow.

The other feeders were within a pound of each other, averaging 24.8 pounds per cow.

“Since hay is some of the most expensive feed used on beef operations, it makes sense to try to keep waste as low as possible through good management practices,” Boyles said.

Outside vs. inside. Storage inside led the cows to sort and select and best parts of the hay less in the Michigan trial.

Much higher waste should be expected in hay with lower palatability from outdoor storage.

“It is important to remember that outside storage of large bales will increase hay losses due to weather-related spoilage,” Boyles said.

In addition, animals fed high-quality hay early in the season will often refuse poor-quality hay when it is offered later, increasing waste.

Design counts. Regardless of hay quality, feeder design has a lot to do with how cows feed and behave.

In the Michigan trials, slant bar feeding spaces encouraged cows to keep their heads inside the feeder, so not as much hay was wasted as when cows pull their heads and full mouths outside the feeder.

Hay racks with solid barriers at the bottom prevent livestock from pulling hay loose with their feet and dragging it out to be stepped on.

In designs with a top rail – cone and ring feeders – cows were forced to eat in a natural grazing position with their heads down.

The top rail also cut back on cows throwing their heads and tossing hay at the feeder.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at

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Select the right system for your herd

SALEM, Ohio – No matter how good composition is, cattle will waste hay. Cut losses by using the right storage and feeding methods for your operation.

The following information from Ohio State University extension beef specialist Stephen Boyles can assist cattlemen in selecting the right system for each herd.

Bales left in pasture. Small round bales are usually left in the field fed with stockpiled tall fescue or other grasses.

Access to the bales should be limited or cattle will quickly destroy and waste much of the hay.

Using electric fencing or other barriers to prevent access to more than a one- or two-day supply of feed can cut waste threefold.

Bales without ring. When feeding bales without a ring or rack, a good way to estimate how many bales to have available each day is to figure one cow per foot of outside diameter of the bale.

Even then, feeding losses can be excessive.

Bales with ring. A better system for feeding large round bales is to set the bale in the pasture or feeding area but limit access to the hay with a rack or hay ring.

This system requires an initial investment in racks or rings, but feeding losses are lower, Boyles’ research shows.

Feeding hay in racks or rings is crucial for producers who do not or cannot feed hay to their cattle on a daily basis.

When hay rings are used, consider the space available around the feeder. Most hay rings have enough space for approximately 10 cows at a time.

The more aggressive cows will eat first and consume the more desirable hay. Cows that are more timid will be forced to eat the lower-quality material or go hungry.

Efficient use. To make the most efficient use of hay rings, purchase several rings and feed more bales at one time.

As an example, a 30-cow herd would consume one 900-pound round bale per day. To feed a 30-cow herd, a producer could use one hay ring that is filled daily.

But a better alternative would be to use three rings filled every three days.

This gives every cow in the herd an opportunity to get hay needed and cuts labor costs.

Similar calculations can be used with other types of hay feeders.

With ring, electric fence. A low-labor system for feeding large round bales in hay rings is to group the bales in a corner of the pasture before winter to reduce labor, tractor use, and pasture.

Bales are spaced on 20-foot centers. The number of bales per paddock is based on bale size, herd size and planned length of stay.

Using Boyles’ earlier example of a 30-cow herd, one 900-pound bale per day would be needed.

Placing 10 bales in a paddock would supply about 10 days worth of feed for a 30-cow herd, five days of feed for a 60-cow herd, and so on.

The bale storage area is blocked off with electric fencing. When hay is needed, the fence is moved and rings are placed around a two- or three-day supply of hay.

This process allows cattle access to ample feed, minimizes waste and still allows for the distribution of manure over several paddocks.

One big advantage of this system is that a three-day supply of hay for 50 cows can be fed in about 15 minutes.

Unrolling bales. Another popular system is to unroll the bale and feed it on the ground as loose hay.

Several equipment manufacturers sell “bale processors” that chop hay and deposit it in a windrow for feeding.

If a three-day (or longer) supply of hay is unrolled or “processed” and left for cattle to consume on their own, feeding losses of 40 percent or more can be expected, Boyles said.

However, if fed on a daily basis, feeding losses run about 12 percent.

Small square bales. Small square bales should be fed in bunks or racks whenever possible to minimize trampling and soiling losses.

However, it is possible to distribute small square bales in daily amounts throughout a pasture without too much hay being trampled or wasted.

Handling and feeding costs are two to four times more expensive than for large round bales.

Grinding hay. Grinding or chopping hay reduces waste and sorting. Ground hay reduces losses due to sorting, trampling, and refusal.

Grinding also allows the use of mixed rations to increase the palatability of coarse or “stemmy” hays.

Ground hay can be fed in turned tires or bunks to reduce losses and waste due to wind.

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Cut losses easily

No matter how hay is packaged, if you waste it, you lose money. Minimize waste by:

* Feeding hay in small amounts or in a feeder to minimize waste.

Feeding hay in a rack or a hay ring limits the opportunity that animals have to trample or soil hay if you intend to provide more than a day’s worth of hay at one time.

* Feed hay in well-drained areas.

If you intend to feed hay in a single location all winter, providing a footing such as crushed gravel or even concrete can help minimize problems with mud.

* Feed hay stored outside before hay stored inside. Large bale systems are designed to minimize labor, not waste.

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