Manage Feed Costs by Evaluating Hay Waste

PennState Extension
(Previously published online with PennState Extension: May 26, 2023)
Sheep and goat operations all experience some amount of hay waste during winter feeding. Now is a good time to look back and evaluate how much hay was wasted.

The largest input cost for any livestock enterprise is feed costs. In forage dependent operations, most of these feed costs occur during the winter when feeding hay. Spring is a great time to assess hay feeding areas and consider how much hay the sheep or goats wasted over the winter.

Is there a large amount of wasted hay lying next to the hay feeders? Did pens inside the barn require minimal bedding last year due to the amount of hay waste? A “yes” answer to either of these questions should inspire producers to look more closely at feed quality and feeder design. Using feeders should be an obvious means to help reduce waste. Less obvious perhaps is the concept that feeders can also help to promote animal health. This occurs by preventing fecal or soil contamination that can lead to problems such as internal parasites, coccidia, or listeriosis. Hay losses can range from 2% to 60% and results from trampling, forage quality or maturity issues, and fecal contamination. This results in sheep or goats refusing to eat what’s left at the bottom of the hay pile, which is typically decomposed and contaminated. Selecting an appropriate feeder can help to manage hay waste.

Not all feeders are designed the same nor is forage quality the same and both can make major differences in the amount of hay wasted by the sheep or goats. Kishel et al 2019 studied the effect of round-bale feeder design and roughage type on feed wastage in sheep feeding. The study used four different feeders to examine changes in hay waste with varying hay quality and feeder design: a round feeder with vertical bars, a round feeder with slanted bars, a six-sided feeder with movable panels, and a feeder that held the round bale in a basket over top of a square platform 18″ off the ground.

In the feed quality part of the research, they found that poor quality forage, defined as forage harvested at a late maturity, resulted in about 1.88 kg of wasted dry matter per ewe each day, or a little over 4 lbs. With better quality forage they found that just 0.48 kg of dry matter got wasted per ewe each day, or about 1 lb. They also noted that most of the waste occurred on the first day the round bale was placed into the feeder compared to four days after the round bale was placed into the feeder.

When comparing feeder design, data confirmed the least amount of hay wasted occurred when using a feeder that held the round bale in a basket. The platform captured hay dropped by the sheep as they ate, which allowed the sheep to consume the forage before it became trampled. Ewes fed in this basket/platform feeder design wasted 0.9 kg of dry matter per ewe each day, or about 2 lbs. Ewes fed in the six-sided feeder with the movable panels wasted 1.0 kg of dry matter per ewe each day or about 2.2 lbs., while ewes fed in the round feeder with diagonal bars wasted 1.1 kg (2.4 lbs.), and the round feeder with vertical bars wasted 1.3 kg (2.9 lbs.) per ewe each day.

Using this research, producers can evaluate feeders based on the differences in feeder design. Choose feeders that either capture dropped forage or that have panels that move inward as the sheep or goats consume a bale. When assessing feeders currently in use that waste a large amount of hay, producers can consider adaptations to prevent waste. Is there a way to prevent excess forage from being pulled out onto the ground? Is there a way to add a device under the feeder to prevent forage from falling on the ground where it becomes soiled?

In addition to feeder design, producers should consider forage quality. Always assess forage visually and have forage analyzed by a certified laboratory. A forage analysis allows producers to look more closely at forage quality. However, producers can move towards better quality forage by visually selecting forages free of mature stems and molds, and that contain little weed contamination as all these factors decrease forage quality. Sheep and goats often sort through the forage, consuming higher quality leaves and wasting the stemmy portions. As forage quality declines sheep and goats often refuse intake of the forage and the forage gets wasted.

One aspect of forage quality centers around the structural component, or cell walls, of plants. These components provide support and protection to the plant. Plant cell walls are made up of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. Sheep and goats can digest cellulose and hemicellulose, as the bacteria in the rumen can break down these fibers and convert to an energy source. However, no animal can digest lignin. A forage analysis estimates the concentration of cell wall components within a forage sample and reports them as neutral detergent fiber (NDF) and acid detergent fiber (ADF). NDF measures the total cell wall content in the forage and as this value, reported as a % dry matter of the forage, increases, forage quality and intake decrease. ADF measures only cellulose and lignin content. As the ADF increases, the forage quality and digestibility decrease. The difference between NDF and ADF then represents the hemicellulose fraction of the forage. Hemicellulose is considered the most digestible fraction of the cell wall. A greater spread between NDF and ADF will improve fiber digestibility and animal acceptance of the forage. As forage quality declines so does the acceptability of that forage to livestock. Poor quality forages with elevated NDF and/or ADF can then result in higher waste. For more information on forage testing, check out Forage Quality Testing: Why, How and Where.

Now is the time for producers to look back at the amount of forage wasted by their sheep or goats last winter and consider how this was impacted by feeder design and forage quality. Take steps throughout the upcoming months to adapt feeders to reduce waste. Producers should also have this year’s forages analyzed to assess feed value and to help balance rations for the winter. Producers who harvest their own forages can consider methods to improve forage quality while producers who purchase forages can purchase based on forage quality as well as cost. Even a well-designed feeder can result in sheep wasting a large amount of forage if forage quality is poor.