– Jessica A. Williamson, Ph.D., Extension Forage Specialist, Penn State
On most livestock operations, the greatest operational cost is stored and harvested feed, so it only makes sense that striving to reduce storage and feeding losses of harvested feeds as much as possible can help improve forage quality, quantity, and overall profitability of an operation. Reducing waste, even by a few percent, can have a direct reflection on farm financial status almost immediately. Dry hay has the potential to meet most ruminant livestock nutrient requirements if harvested correctly and at the optimal stage of maturity to meet the class of livestock’s nutrient requirements, and if quality is maintained throughout the storage period. However, supplemental nutrition is often a necessity as a result of hay quality and quantity losses through storage and feeding.
Storage losses of uncovered hay can be upwards of 30%, including weather and respiration, resulting in one of the largest outlets for lost dollars on a livestock operation. Some factors affecting the amount of forage loss due to weather include bale density, weather and climate conditions throughout the duration of storage, and species of hay. Uncovered hay losses quality as rain washes through the bale and removes the desirable water-soluble carbohydrates of the plant cells through leaching, causing a reduction in total digestible nutrients (TDN).
Dry matter loss after harvest occurs as a result of plant respiration, even in hay with less than 20% dry matter. When harvest moisture levels are greater than 20%, the incidence of mold is much more likely, causing an even greater dry matter loss as a result of microbial activity.
The best option for reducing storage losses is to store hay under cover. A hay barn is always the best choice for reducing storage losses, but other options such as plastic tarps or net wrap can also help improve storage. If no cover option is available, it would be beneficial to keep bales off the ground, either by placing them on pallets or on a gravel lot. This will help bales from sitting in water after high precipitation. A study by the University of Tennessee shows a 5% loss in round bales under a hay barn, stacked or tarped hay on pallets had a 14% loss, while round bales that were net wrapped had a 23% loss. Even with those losses, uncovered hay had an astounding 30% loss.
There are several different methods for feeding hay, all of which have their benefits and disadvantages. Hay refusal is the biggest factor in feeding losses, which is directly related to quality. Other losses during feeding include trampling, leaf shatter, and fecal contamination, all of which are related to how the hay is fed. Feeding hay on pasture ground can have benefits and downfalls. Spreading the hay out and moving the location of where it is fed can provide benefits to the soil health and reseeding of forages within that pasture. This practice is best if the hay that is being fed is very clean and weed-free. If feeding hay in a pasture, it is recommended that only a single day’s worth of feed is offered. If animals are fed mass quantities of hay that is intended to last them several days or even weeks, a large amount of waste is often the result of sorting, trampling, bedding, and fecal contamination.
Feeding out of rings can provide a barrier between the hay and animal, reducing waste from trampling or fecal contamination. This practice could lead to loss of pasture if being fed on sod as a result of compaction and trampling, so it is recommended to feed hay out of rings in a livestock concentration area, on concrete, or on gravel. No matter the method of feeding, a well-drained site is always recommended.
Reducing even a small portion of loss when storing or feeding hay will have direct and immediate impacts economically on a livestock operation, so plan carefully for methods on improved storage and feeding.