If hay is stored and fed properly, hay loss can be minimized. Total losses from hay storage and feeding are estimated to exceed three billion dollars annually nationwide. This does not include additional economic losses associated with labor used to store and feed hay. While it is normal to expect some hay loss during feeding, minimizing hay feeding losses should be a primary producer goal.

Hay loss from feeding can range from less than 2% to as much as 60%. Feeding losses can occur from trampling, chemical and physical deterioration, fecal contamination, and livestock refusal. The amount of loss will be affected by feeding method, interval between feedings, amount fed, weather conditions, number of animals being fed, method of storage, and overall hay quality.

Feeding Methods

Continued feeding in the same area the entire winter can result in excessive sod destruction, muddy conditions, heavy spring weed germination, increased pathogen transmission, and soil compaction. If you do choose to feed in one area, it is advised to feed on a “high traffic area pad” which is a solid surface created by concrete or gravel. The publication Using Geotextiles for Feeding and Traffic Surfaces has more information on constructing high traffic area pads. If you choose not to feed on a high traffic area pad, moving the feeding area around will help spread manure more uniformly over the field, improve soil fertility of thin spots, and reduce sod damage. Well-drained, upland sites are more optimal feeding areas. Avoid placing hay near streams or lowland areas.

To reduce waste, it is advised to provide only enough hay to last for one day. If large amounts of hay must be put out at one time, it is helpful to place a barrier between the hay and animals to reduce waste. Feeding racks or rings can be effective barriers. Large round bales should especially have a feeding ring around it to reduce waste.

Types of Feeders

In a study performed by Dr. Buskirk at Michigan State University, the four most commonly used round-bale feeders were evaluated: the cone feeder, the ring feeder, the trailer feeder, and the cradle feeder. The trailer and cradle feeder generated the most waste. In these feeders, cows commonly pull their heads out to push another cow out of the way, dropping hay on the ground and trampling it. With the ring and cone feeders, cows were more content to stay where they were and didn’t push other cows around as much, resulting in less hay on the ground. The cone feeder (reduced hay waste by 43% compared to a ring feeder with metal skirting) generated the least waste of the four. The metal sheeting on the bottom of feeders reduces waste significantly by preventing hay from falling out the bottom of the feeder to be trampled. In a Missouri study, hay loss was reduced by 30% with metal sheeting on the bottom of a ring round bale feeder.

Feed Based on Hay Quality

To efficiently use your hay, hay must be sampled in separate lots or cuttings, tested for its nutrient content and fed based on your cattle’s nutrient needs. Using this method, the quality of hay can be matched to the nutrient demands of the animal. For example, your highest quality hay should be fed to the animals with the highest nutritional requirements, such as young calves, growing heifers, or when your cows are nursing calves.

In summary, the following key management tools will help to reduce hay losses during feeding:

  • Match hay quality to animals’ nutritional requirements.
  • Select well-drained sites for outside feeding.
  • Use a hay feeder to reduce trampling and hay losses.
  • Minimize the amount of hay that animals will have access to at one time.

Winter 2013 minimizing hay waste

The metal sheeting on the cone feeder (top photo) reduces hay loss significantly compared to the ring feeder with no sheeting (bottom photo). Photo Credit: Jeff Lehmkuhler