Cattle can waste as much as 45 percent of their hay when it is fed without restrictions. When hay is in short supply and expensive, how can you reduce these losses?
Emeritus Professor / Extension Forage Specialist / University of Nebraska – Lincoln

Your first step should be to limit how much hay is available. Research from Purdue University shows that cattle fed hay with free access every four days needed about 25 percent more hay than cattle fed daily. Daily feeding reduced the amount of hay refused, trampled, fouled, over-consumed, or used for bedding.

A second step is to restrict access to the hay by using hay racks, bale rings, electric fences, feed bunks, or anything else that will keep animals off the hay.

It’s especially important to limit the amount of hay accessible to trampling. Oklahoma State University research found that cattle waste as much as 21 percent of the hay when fed from an open bottom hay feeder. Hay waste was reduced to less than six percent when hay was provided using a cone-style feeder with a sheeted bottom.  That’s a savings of $150 for every $1,000 worth of hay fed.

Michigan State University research had similar results with ring and cone-type feeders experiencing 3 to 6 percent waste while cattle wasted 14.6% of the hay fed in a rectangular cradle feeder. These studies as well as those from other states show it is best to bale rings with solid barriers at the bottom to prevent livestock from pulling hay loose and then dragging it out to be stepped on.

If you feed hay on the ground, either as loose hay, unrolled round bales, or as ground hay, it is especially important to follow these guidelines. Over one-third of the hay can be wasted if fed in excessive amounts unprotected on the ground.  Limit the hay fed to an amount animals will clean up in a single meal because anything left over will be stepped on, fouled, or used for bedding instead of as feed. 

And if you can – use an electric wire or other barrier to restrict access by the cattle to only one side of the feed on the ground. But also be sure to distribute that hay enough so all cows have access at the same time.

With a little foresight and careful management, you can stretch your hay further. FG

Bruce Anderson, Ph.D.
 is an agronomy and forage specialist for the 

University of Nebraska – Lincoln.