Managing hay and forages in winter

by Tamara Scully

As the last cutting of hay is baled and stored, the question of whether or not it will be enough to support the beef herd through the winter can be a tricky one. For those raising grass-fed beef, particularly in extreme cold weather areas, the amount of hay available to supplement the herd during the winter is particularly important.

The University of Kentucky’s Beef Cattle Institute (BCI) offered tips for livestock producers as the winter season approaches in a recent podcast.

Common concerns include “Do I have enough hay? How do I make that assessment? Am I at the right spot for this time of year going into winter feeding?”

Assessing Need

Taking an inventory of both your stockpiled forages and your stored hay is the first step in determining if you’ll have enough feed to get your herd through winter. But it isn’t quite that simple. Counting the bales of hay or density of forages in the pasture isn’t enough.

Each cow is estimated to require 2% of its body weight in dry hay. These experts suggest that waste will increase that a bit, and calculations should reflect this. The average weight of your cows multiplied by about 2.25% – 2.5%, and then by the number of cows in the herd, should provide a working estimate of how much dry hay they could utilize per day. Then, calculate the number of days you’ll need to supplement any available stockpiled, dormant pasture that may be available.

Many things affect how much hay is actually required. The quality of the hay, the storage and feed loss that happens to that hay and the quality of stockpiled forages available to be grazed also factor into the equation. Weather is an uncontrollable factor to consider. Whether cows will be dry or lactating, and the timing of calving, should also be considered.

Knowing the quality of any feed is just as important as knowing the quantity on hand. Stockpiled forages aren’t simply overgrown, overly mature pastures that were never grazed or cut. They should be pasture forages that were allowed to regrow to a stage that can provide optimal nutrition during the dormant season.

Testing stored hay for quality (and doing so as winter approaches, not when the hay was originally stored) gives the best indication of the nutritional quality the hay can provide during winter feeding. Knowing the quality of all your stored hay lots, and allotting the highest quality to the cow groups which have higher nutritional needs, provides the best indication of whether or not your supplemental hay will provide the proper nutrition.

The number of days each cow will be dry versus lactating, as well as the number of days from calving until spring grazing, are other important factors in determining the amount of stored feed required.

Decreasing Waste

Overestimating the weight of hay bales is common. Waste occurs during storage, particularly if hay is exposed to moisture. Storing bales on pallets or a rock base to prevent moisture seepage from bare ground, and covering bales stored outdoors, can prevent significant loss.

Feed loss will occur if hay is of poor quality. Cattle will not consume as much of it, will sort it and then leave the unpalatable portions on the ground. Up to 50% loss can occur at feeding if hay is of poor quality. Typical loss is usually calculated at about 20%.

Cows will consume more poor quality feed – whether hay or standing forages – if they receive a protein supplement with it.

Residual forages, like hay, are not all of the same quality. Knowing the nutritional quality left in your stockpiled forages can help determine whether, when or how much hay to feed. If the cost of grazing dormant forages is comparable to feeding hay, even if the cost of protein supplementation is included in grazing lower quality stands, grazing may still offer advantages, including saved labor costs to feed hay and less concentrated manure areas to manage.

How and when bales are fed can also affect waste. Large bales fed on pasture tend to increase waste, via trampling and spoilage. Providing fresh hay more frequently can reduce hay loss when bale grazing. Hay racks or rings can also decrease loss, as can fencing off bales to prevent access to more than a day or two of hay at a time. Flaking large square bales and spreading them on pasture can prevent some loss over feeding an entire bale at once. Spacing out feeding areas to prevent mud will also decrease spoiled feed.

Waste should be monitored throughout the season. The initial calculation on expected waste can easily change. Any decrease in hay quality or an overestimation of the amount of hay available per bale can lead to unexpected shortages if monitoring isn’t occurring throughout the season. While the initial assessment is important, ongoing evaluation is imperative.

Cold weather increases the need for feed to meet body maintenance needs. Snow and ice can prevent or reduce access to pasture forages. Allowing extra bales at these times should be factored into your hay supply inventory as well.

According to the BCI experts, the top seven tips for ensuring enough hay is on hand for supplemental feeding of grazing winter cattle are assessing the quality of the stored hay and the available pasture forages; forage testing all feedstocks; having a supplementation plan in place before the start of winter feeding; calculating hay per cow needs, including wastage of one-quarter to one-half pound per cow per day; knowing the number of days cows will be dry or lactating and days from calving to grass; taking into account the nutritional needs each cow stage requires; determining the number of days of stockpiled forages available in pastures and planning hay supplementation accordingly; and tracking hay feeding as you go, keeping an eye on inventory and forage consumption.

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