Feeding Hay in Drought

By Chad Guthrie, Hunter Nickell, KSU Southwind Extension District Agents

Throughout the summer and fall, much of Kansas was reported as being in a D2 severe drought, D3 extreme drought, or, a D4 exceptional drought. This has led to poor pasture quality, limited livestock water, poor cattle condition, and record high hay prices as quality and quantity has declined. In this article we are going to look at different methods of feeding hay to cattle focusing on limiting hay waste and saving money.

No matter the method of feeding, bale waste is directly affected by how much hay you are providing cattle at one time. Feeding only the amount of hay cattle need each day can have up to 25% less hay waste when compared to providing 2 or more days’ worth via the same feeding methods.

**Special Note** Forage analyses are an inexpensive way to know exactly what you are feeding your cattle. Forage probes can be checked out at most extension offices, and agents will help you choose the best lab and analysis for you needs.

Feeding Hay on Pasture

Let’s first look at four methods of feeding hay while cattle are still out on pasture. Many producers stockpile Tall Fescue in Southeast Kansas and feed supplemental hay while cattle are on pasture. While most of the Fescue has greened up with recent precipitation, not much growth has happened this fall. Still, producers may look to feed cattle in pastures where water is available.

Method 1: Hay Rings or Round Feeders

The tried and true method to get hay to cattle. Every livestock farm has at least one of these, and it continues to be the most used method to feed hay. Feeding out of a hay ring is simple and takes little effort with a loader tractor on the farm.

Let’s consider that there are many types of bale rings, each offering their own benefits and downfalls. Today we are going to focus on data from Oklahoma State University showing % hay waste with three commonly used bale rings, and one “ideal” hay ring type that isn’t as commonly used.

Type 1: Open Bale Ring. The open bale ring is your simplest form of a bale ring. Being fairly self-explanatory, the open bale ring is just that, a ring of metal tubing to hold the bale in place while cattle eat. This ring type has shown to have around 20% of total bale weight being wasted as hay can fall out of the bottom, and cattle can drag hay out to bed on.

            Type 2: Poly-pipe Bale Ring. The Poly-pipe rings are becoming very popular because of their durability, light weight, and maneuverability. Poly-pipe bale rings are functionally the same as open bale rings, performing the same with 20% total waste.

            Type 3: Sheeted Bottom Bale Rings. These bale rings add a sheet of metal to the bottom half of the feeders, limiting hay from falling out of the bottom as the bale unravels. Most sheeted button rings also have stanchions on the top half to limit the number of cattle that have access to the bale at a given time. Sheeted Bottom Bale Rings with 16 stanchions were shown to have around 13% total waste.

            Type 4: Modified Cone Feeders. In this study, an “ideal” bale ring was constructed. A “cone” was added to the top of a sheeted bottom ring. This cone only allows small amounts of hay to be dropped down the feeder at a time. This modified cone feeder had only 5.3% waste.

Method 2: Unrolling Bales

Unrolling bales on pasture is another commonly used method to feed hay. It is as simple as unrolling a large round bale with a tractor, hydraulic bale bed, or using gravity to unroll down a slope.

Unrolling bales has been given the nickname of the “bed and breakfast” feeding method. As the nickname states, cattle will not only feed on the unrolled bale, they will take the opportunity to bed in the soft hay, further increasing waste. Simply unrolling bales can have varying amounts of wastage, depending on the amount of cattle being fed at one time. More cattle will create more competition and less waste, while fewer cattle will create less competition and more waste. Studies by Kansas State University have shown 22-23% waste using this method.

Method 3: Unrolling Bales and Using Electric Fence

Adding just one more step to Method 2 on our list, using electric fences helps to solve some of the waste that farmers experience when unrolling bales on pasture. The idea is simple, unroll the bale as you normally would and then string a hot electric fence right down the middle of the roll.

            You may have noticed a trend as we looked at feeding methods. As you add barriers to accessing the hay, you tend to limit waste. The idea of using electric fence over top of the bale role is relatively new, and is not backed with land-grant research, but seeing trends from the research on other feeding methods, one could hypothesize that hay waste will be limited to some degree. If your operation utilizes electric fences, it may be worth trying. 

Method 4: Grazing Bales

Grazing bales can take a bit more preparation than the previous methods, but once the fencing is in place, it is an easy and versatile method of feeding cattle. Grazing bales is spreading bales evenly throughout a field, and then limiting access to only a few bales at a time with an electric fence. This method can be very useful to producers who may not have access to a loader tractor or bale bed on a daily basis, or even for producers who don’t want to cold start their tractors every day this winter. By spreading the bales throughout the field, you only need equipment for one day, and then you can move the fence on foot as needed.

As we look at the potential for waste with this method, we can look back at the other methods in this list. Grazing bales can easily incorporate one or more of the aforementioned methods, whether it be moving one or more hay rings to the next bales to be grazed, or unrolling the bales ahead of time and allowing access as needed. When bale grazing, waste can range from 5-15% if hay rings are used, or 11-45% when no rings are used.

Feeding in Dry Lots

Some cattle producers may choose to feed cattle in dry lots this winter for convenience, pasture health, or because of water limitations. Depending on lot size, many methods from above can be repeated with similar results. For example, feeding with bale rings will result in 5.3-20% waste in a dry lot, just as it would on pasture.

Many producers that feed in dry lots will use a bale processor or mixer to feed hay. Processed hay will decrease the selectivity of cattle and therefor decrease waste. Feeding processed hay in a bunk line will result in 8-11% waste.

Another option for producers feeding in a dry lot is feeding a total mixed ration (TMR). A TMR is a mix of feeds such as ground forage (hay or silage), grain, protein feed, vitamins, minerals, and other additives. When mixed properly, cattle are unable to select for certain ingredients, giving producers more control over feed intake.

Feeding a TMR in a bunk line will result in 2-10 % waste, depending on the mix. While a TMR adds additional feed costs, a proper mix can decrease hay usage by 20-50% when compared to feeding hay in an open bale ring. For producers with limited hay resources and access to a mixer, a TMR may be a more cost-effective option for feeding cattle this fall.

Considerations for feeding in a bunk line: Plan to need between 28- and 36-inches of bunk space per cow, depending on cattle frame size. Also plan to feed cows, calves, and bulls separately to ensure each animal is eating the necessary allotment. 

A drought can make it tough for cattle producers to turn profits with decreased amounts of quality forages, poor animal performance, and limited water, but changing how animals are fed could lead to serious savings. Switching from an open bale ring to a sheeted bottom bale ring could save over $10/ton of hay fed on $150/ton hay.

For more information, and to have your hay tested, contact Hunter Nickell, Livestock Agent, or Chad Guthrie, Crop Production and Forage Management Agent at any Southwind Extension District Office.

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