Simply counting round bales, feet of silage bags and estimating remaining grazing days is a good place to start. While getting an accurate count of stored feeds is important, understanding how far the stored feeds will go is necessary.

Meteer travis
Beef Extension Educator / University of Illinois


A cow will eat 2.5% of its bodyweight in hay. That means a 1,300-pound cow will eat 32.5 pounds of hay. When offered free choice, waste can be 25% or more. That means it will use roughly 40 pounds of hay per day. A month of hay for that cow would be close to 1,200 pounds. Thus, the old rule of thumb is: one big round bale per cow per month.

Supplemental energy and protein

The amount of supplement required is directly linked to the quality of the forage. Cattle consuming stockpiled fescue or good-quality hay may need very little supplementation. However, hay that is overmature will need help to meet cow requirements. Poor quality causes lower intakes, which results in more supplement needed. It is always best to sample your feedstuffs and test for a nutrient analysis.

Knowing the weight and body condition score (BCS) of cows is important to determining supplement needs. Heavier-weight, heavier-milking cows have higher requirements. Cows that are thin or do not have shelter need higher allocation for added energy requirements. Cows traveling long distances or expending more energy walking through mud require more supplement to maintain.


After you have a feed inventory, it is important to identify what feeds fit different stages of production. Utilize poor-quality forages such as cornstalks and poor-quality hay when cows are at their lowest nutrient requirements (mid-gestation, dry). By simply matching your feeds with the nutrient requirements of the cow, you can avoid paying for high-priced supplements.


Save good-quality forages for closer to calving. Higher-quality forages will offer more nutrition. They are also more palatable – and thus higher intakes help achieve proper nutrient requirements.


Sometimes feed budgets are like hitting a moving target. Waste and shrink associated with the feeds being inventoried is often a hard number to predict. It is also a hard number to stomach. The wastes associated with hay can be quite large when stored outside and fed ad libitum. Shrink in grains, co-products and silages also needs to be considered. Shrink for grains should be around 2%, yet wet feeds and silages are generally around 10% shrink. Minimizing shrink should be a focus of profit-minded cattle producers.

Be aware of stored feed needs. As always, extending the time a cow is grazing will reduce costs. However, when the time comes to supply harvested feeds to meet the cow’s nutrition requirements, producers need to be prepared.