Preparing for hay feeding season

Preparing for hay feeding seasonHay feeding season started all too early this year for many beef producers. However, with fall rain and cooler temperatures pastures have regrown giving a break from hay feeding. As days get shorter and temperatures drop the return to hay feeding will begin. With hay prices at historical highs and inventory short a careful evaluation of hay feeding method can pay dividends.

Hay feeder advertisements will promote 10%, 20%, 30% or greater hay savings. When average quality grass hay is worth $100 per ton in the weekly market report, a 30% savings will equal what producers paid for hay in years past. Selecting a feeder or feeding system designed to conserve hay can reduce the cost to carry a cow over the winter while reducing hay inventory needs.

Hay feeders designs are as diverse as the designers. The remainder of this article will discuss some common feeder characteristics and designs as they relate to hay waste.

Preparing for hay feeding seasonFor some, simply having a feeder is a step toward conserving hay. Allowing cattle unrestricted access to hay bales results in about 20% hay waste compared to using some sort of feeder. The first experiments regarding hay waste evaluated using a feeder or not and by not using a feeder more hay was trampled and soiled during feeding.

With the development of bale beds many producers began unrolling hay to spread nutrients around pastures and minimize feeding area damage. Hay unrolling has resulted in 10 to 15% greater waste compared to using ring feeders. Hay waste is minimized in unrolling systems by unrolling only what cattle will consume in one day. Unrolling only what is needed is easier in larger herds or management groups matched to bale weight, since extra hay is a smaller percent of the total hay offered. For smaller operations the largest challenge with unrolling hay is the daily feeding requirement to minimize waste. Offering two days of hay without using feeders will increase waste while reducing labor and equipment expenses.

When comparing feeders all alternative feeders are based around a modification of the standard bale ring with an open bottom. These feeders typically have 16 to 18 feeding stations and are light weight to allow placing over the bale by hand. Feeders with less defined feeding stations such as those with fewer bars allow boss cows to dominate areas of the feeder and with increased head movement hay waste also increases.

Improvements to the basic feeder are decreased bottom ring spacing, increased bars or solid sheeting to reduce hay lost out the bottom. If no other hay feeder improvement is considered select a feeder with a solid skirt around the bottom. As hay feeds out the cattle move hay outside the ring and this is immediately trampled into the mud outside the feeder without solid skirting.

Another variation on round skirted feeders adds a series of pipes in a cone-shaped insert in addition to a solid ring around the top of the feeder. Alternatively some manufacturers use chains to support the bale rather than the cone-shaped pipes. These bars or chains support the bale allowing cattle space to consume the hay in a natural grazing position once hay is pulled from the bale above. These feeders have demonstrated increased hay savings over open bottomed rings.

Whether this savings is due to suspending the bale or the additional top ring is not yet confirmed. With large round bales and short ring feeders cows will pull hay out over the top of the feeder. Previous research has shown manger style feeders where cattle pull hay down to a natural grazing position without a confined feeder to consume the hay increases hay waste.

Square and round feeders with a full size base and tapered top ring or rail use the idea of allowing cattle a natural grazing position eat once hay is pulled from the bale. Similar to the ring feeders this style can be open or skirted. Conceptually these feeders provide the same restricting effect of the cone feeders without having to lift the bale into the cone. With larger diameter bales cattle could pull hay out over the top of the feeder increasing waste. Research on this style feeder is lacking.

If you are considering purchasing a new hay feeder this year consider the benefits of using hay conserving feeders to minimize hay waste costs. The Noble Foundation developed an on-line tool available at producers can use to compare the "cost" of different feeders based on a recent experiment by Oklahoma State University.

Source: Dr. Justin Sexten, State Extension Specialist - Beef Nutrition