Feeding Management to Minimize Hay Waste

Stephen Boyles, OSU Extension Beef Specialist

Feeding hay to cattle is expensive. Hay costs between $0.02 and $0.07 per pound of dry matter; usually more than double the cost for the same amount of nutrients from pasture. Hay is expensive because (1) it requires a large investment in equipment, (2) it requires labor to make and feed, and (3) more than 50 percent of it is wasted by either poor storage methods or improper feeding practices.  This article focuses on the last of these expenses — losses associated with feeding hay.

You wouldn’t dream of throwing away one-third of your hay.  That is what happens, though, when livestock are allowed unlimited access to hay.  Livestock trample and waste 25 to 45 percent of the hay when it is fed with no restrictions.

Square bale in a rack 7
Large round bale in rack 9
Large round bale without rack 45

Bell, S. and F. A. Martz. 1973. Res. Rept. Univ. of Missouri Agric. Exp. Sta.

No matter how hay is packaged, if you waste it, you lose money. Below are some general rules that can help minimize waste during feeding.

  1. Feed 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Feed hay stored outside before hay stored inside. Large bale systems are designed to minimize labor, not waste. It is important to remember that outside storage of large bales will increase hay losses due to weather-related spoilage. Hay stored outside usually has more spoilage during storage and lower palatability than hay stored inside. Cattle will waste a greater percentage of poor-quality hay than they will of good-quality hay. Animals fed high-quality hay early in the season will often refuse poor-quality hay when it is offered later.

Large round bales with no ring: When feeding large round 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.

Large round 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 hayracks or rings, but feeding losses are lower.  Feeding hay in racks or rings is crucial for producers who do not or cannot feed hay to their cattle on a daily basis.

Hay wasted by cows Hay fed per cow per feeding, lb Hay refused or waster, percent
Rack feeding 5
No rack  –
1-day supply 20 11
2-day supply 40 25
4-day supply 80 31

Smith, W.H. et al. 1974. ID-97. Purdue Univ. Coop. Ext. Serv. W. Lafayette, IN

When hay rings are used, you need to consider the space available around the feeder. Most hay rings have enough space for approximately 10 cows at a time. Hayracks with solid barriers at the bottom prevent livestock from pulling hay loose with their feet and dragging it out to be stepped on. 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. To make the most efficient use of hay rings, you may need to 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, we could use one hay ring that is filled daily. But a better alternative would be to use three hay rings that are filled every three days. This gives every cow in the herd an opportunity to get the hay she needs, in addition to cutting labor costs. Similar calculations can be used with other types of hay feeders.

Large round bales with ring and 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-feeding time 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 our earlier example of a 30-cow herd, we would need one 900-pound bale per day. So placing 10 bales in a paddock would supply about ten 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 the 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 large round 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. However, if fed on a daily basis, feeding losses run about 12 percent.

Small round bales left in the pasture:  Small round bales are usually left in the field after baling. Producers often feed these bales in conjunction with stockpiled tall fescue. 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.

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 of long stemmed hay. 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.  One must evaluate the cost of grinding hay though.

Summary: Some hay will be lost or wasted. Proper feeding management minimizes these losses. 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.