Burning your bottom line: How hot hay changes forage quality

Rain-dampened hay on Doug Jernigan Farms in North Carolina.

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. 

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


For perspective, hay production per beef cow in Oklahoma has increased from about three-quarters of a ton in the mid ’70s 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. 

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 vice versa. 

Producers who have relocated their cattle out of state for winter feeding this year should consider having a weed management protocol in place when the cattle return, say North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension specialists.

In other words, if two or more days’ worth of hay must be fed at a time, expect hay waste to exceed 25 percent 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. David Lalman, Oklahoma State University Extension beef cattle specialist


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