Improving Hay Feeding Efficiency

David Lalman, Oklahoma State University Extension Beef Cattle Specialist


Most agricultural economists argue that finding ways to minimize the amount of hay fed in a cow-calf enterprise is one of the keys to profitability. In contrast, over the last 50 years, hay production has steadily increased, while the beef cow inventory has remained relatively constant. During the same period, the dairy cow and horse inventories have declined substantially. For perspective, hay production per beef cow in Oklahoma has increased from about ¾ of a ton in the mid 70’s to about 2.25 tons per beef cow more recently (Fig. 1). Thus, making efficient use of harvested hay continues to represent “low-hanging fruit” in both seedstock and commercial cattle operations.


Figure 1. Oklahoma hay production and cattle inventory (National Ag Statistics Service, USDA)

Feeding strategies for large round bales can be separated into use of a hay feeder and rolling bales out. A major advantage to rolling bales out is improved distribution of hay waste and manure over the pasture, which should lead to improved soil fertility. Hoof action is also distributed over a larger feeding area, and this could lead to less soil compaction and (or) less sod/plant damage compared to concentrated feeding areas associated with hay feeders. The disadvantage to relying on unrolling hay is the need to feed every day if standing forage availability is limited. Hay waste is basically a function of the amount of hay provided per animal each day. The more restricted the amount of hay fed, the lower the waste and visa versa. In other words, if two or more days’ worth of hay must be fed at a time, expect hay waste to exceed 25% of the original bale weight. Granted, the term “waste” may be considered a matter of perspective, because the “wasted” hay does provide soil nutrients and organic matter to the system.


Hay waste when feeding is a large cost to most of our cow-calf production systems in Oklahoma. Next week’s article will cover hay feeder designs to reduced hay feeding waste.


See Paul Beck talk about rotating hay feeding areas on a Sunup TV program aired on January 12, 2019. Rotating hay locations for cattle (1/12/19) - YouTube


Dave Lalman discusses how to get the most out of your hay on SunUp TV from October 22, 2018 Getting the most out of your hay (10/20/18) - YouTube


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