To Hay or Not to Hay?

Allen Gahler, Extension Agent ANR, Fairfield County

It’s that time of year again when those of us engaged in crop production are either working diligently to get the planter and tractor ready, or have already begun our spring planting. But how many of us have begun work on the hay equipment and have the baler greased, the rake tines replaced, and the mower/conditioner cutter bar sharpened? Not many of us I’m sure, but no need to worry yet because there is still plenty of time to work on that equipment before the hay will be ready to cut. So for now our plans should be to focus strictly on getting the cows bred and the corn planted, right?

My answer to that question is yes, but with an asterisk. And that asterisk does not stand for a simple reminder that the hay equipment still needs work when a rainy day comes along. It also does not stand for a reminder that most of last year’s hay was made poorly so we need to really think about prioritizing and interrupting the corn planter or the bean drill to make sure first cutting is timed properly and made right. In fact, to illustrate what my asterisk is, I’m going to change the symbol to a dollar sign ($).

Why a dollar sign? Because the underlying thought to the priority of getting the cows bred and the corn planted should be hay, just not the equipment. In my mind the thought should be the ground underneath that hay and what its value is, and what the true feed and economic value of that hay crop will be. We can find that out by getting our hay tested for nutrient content and assigning a feed value to it, which we can compare to the cost and quality of hay that we could buy at the auction. This would tell us whether or not we should be making our own or buying our hay and then the discussion is over right? Not so fast. Here are some other key points to think about and items to put the pencil to when considering not only the value of the hay, but the value of the ground underneath it:

  • Production costs (including the normal or variable costs like seed, fertilizer, pesticides, twine, fuel, and grease)
  • Production costs (including the hidden and not often accounted for or fixed costs like labor for your own time, machinery investment and maintenance, land value, and management fees to yourself)
  • Opportunity Costs (in other words, what could I be doing with this ground if it were not hay, and would that alternative be economically feasible even if it meant buying hay or other feeds?)
  • Hay storage methods and resulting losses in dry matter and nutrient content
  • Hay feeding methods and resulting losses in dry matter and nutrient content
  • Comparison of the hay feed value to other feedstuffs, not just against the values of purchased hay. (silage, wheat middlings, soybean hulls, corn, etc.)

So what might we come up with when considering all or even some of the above factors in our pencil pushing?

Let’s start with production costs. According OSU Extension specialist Robert Moore’s 2003 Ohio Enterprise budget for grass hay production in a large bale system on a 5 year stand, if we expect an average yield of 3 tons per acre, then the total production costs including the fixed and variable costs discussed above would be $258 per acre.

Now let’s find out what we are really getting in terms of feed for that $258 that results in 6,000 lbs or 3 tons of hay. A mature beef cow needs to consume 2.5 – 3.0 % of her body weight in dry matter per day. Using a 1300 pound cow that would be approximately 32 lbs. of dry matter intake per day. Even though assuming often makes a you-know-what out of you and me, let’s assume that hay is made at 10% moisture. This gives us 90% of 6,000 lbs, or about 5,400 lbs. of dry matter of hay per acre. Now, how much hay does it take to get through the winter? In Ohio, the average hay feeding period is 150 days, so to get one cow through the winter, we need 32 lbs. of dry matter for 150 days, or 4800 lbs.

Well that was not rocket science, and we can now see that from one acre of grass hay, we can winter 1.1 cows (5400/4800) for $258, or one cow for about $235. However, before greasing the baler, we need to look back through that list of asterisks, or dollar signs above. For instance, how do you store your hay and how do you feed your hay? According to a 2003 West Virginia University study, round bales stored uncovered on the ground will suffer an average dry matter loss of 33%. That takes our 5400 lbs. of dry matter from one acre of hay down to about 3600 lbs. Seems pretty extreme, especially for bales that are fed early in the season, but remember, it’s an average, and our actual losses may not be that severe, but there is always that chance.

Now with the feeding methods, many different studies have shown different amounts of loss. For consistency, we will utilize another WVU study that shows an average feeding loss for round bales fed in a round bale feeding ring of 9% dry matter. Taking away the storage loss and then the 9% feeding loss brings our original 5400 lbs. of dry matter from one acre down to 3,276 lbs. All of a sudden we cannot even get one cow through the winter on the hay produced from one acre of ground. In fact, since that cow needs 4800 lbs. of dry matter, we now need 1.46 acres of hay per cow. At an average production cost of $258 per acre, it will cost us $377 to winter that one cow on this feeding system! Over 150 days, that equals $2.51 per head per day!

Again it sounds like we have an extreme number in an extreme situation. We can’t possibly be feeding our cow for $2.51 per day can we? To find out let’s look at some statistics from the survey results at this past winter’s Cow/Calf school held in Fairfield and Highland Counties. The average operation represented had 50 cows, 1.75 acres of pasture per cow, and 1.36 acres of hay per cow. Although many had different techniques and methods for winter feeding, simply using these numbers and the same production costs, storage losses, and feeding losses for the whole group, it was calculated that this group of progressive Ohio cattlemen were wintering their cows for an average of $2.34 per head per day. Although somewhat lower than our previous example, this should still be an alarming number when you put the pencil to your entire beef operation budget.

So how do we fix this number? We could start by analyzing our production costs and doing everything we can to lower those variable costs. We could also look into changing our storage methods for hay (A building with roof and 3 sides could actually pay for itself in just a few years), or we could look at something totally different – the opportunity costs for this hay ground.

So what could we be feeding our cows instead of hay, or better yet, what could we be growing on that ground instead of hay that would get our cows through the winter for less money? Several alternatives exist, including high grain diets, silage, by-product feeds, and my personal favorite – alternative forages that can be grazed in the winter!

The extended season grazing option is an article or maybe 2 or 3 articles in itself, and we have plenty of time to make plans for this, so we will share thoughts on that option in future editions of the BEEF Cattle letter. However, what could be a precursor to having ground available for the planting of alternative forages is finding something besides hay to grow on that ground right now. For instance, let’s pick corn silage. The 2003 Ohio Enterprise budget shows production costs on 1 acre of corn silage to be $321, but this gives a yield of 33,000 lbs. of silage. On a 60% moisture basis, that gives us 13,200 lbs. of dry matter per acre for $321. That cow still only needs 32 lbs. of dry matter of feed or 4800 lbs. for the winter, so in this instance, we could grow enough feed on one acre of corn silage to feed 2.75 cows. Even at the higher production cost of $321/ acre, the cost per cow per day on this system would be approximately $0.78, a savings of $1.73 from our first hay example!

No, we did not account for storage or feeding losses on the silage, and we did not consider overhead costs such as getting silage equipment and paying for hay equipment that would sit unused, but just take this thought with you – many of us already have a corn planter, and silage can usually be custom hire chopped and bagged for around $10 per ton, which would only raise our production cost $66 per acre and our total feed cost to $0.93 per head per day, a savings of $1.58 per day, or $237 per cow for the winter!