Providing high quality forage for beef cattle depends on several factors including land availability, feed storage (hay shed, silo) and access equipment or a custom operator.

Dr. Tara Felix, Penn State beef specialist, hears producers say “I make my own hay so I don’t have feed costs.” She asks, “How much could you sell the hay for?”

“Hay is incredibly valuable, and if you can sell it for $250 per ton, do it and buy corn. You can feed cattle cheaper on corn when hay is $250 a ton.”

Corn has double the energy value of hay – farmers can feed half the amount of corn for every pound of hay fed. “If corn is also $250 per ton and you sell hay for $250 per ton, you just cut energy costs in half,” she said.

Research at Ohio State addressed the question “How much does a one-ton hay bale weigh?” An Extension agent weighed one-ton hay bales from around the state and found the average one-ton hay bale actually weighed 750 pounds.

“Are you paying $120 for a ton of hay or paying $60 for a ton of hay? Or are you paying $60 for 750 pounds of hay?” Felix asked. “You don’t know if you don’t measure it. If you’re buying hay, keep tabs and figure out if their one-ton hay bales actually weigh one ton. If you’re selling hay, be honest.”

Hay comes with waste issues, which can be due to several factors including quality, amount fed and feeding method. “It isn’t free hay,” said Felix. “Allowing cows to waste hay adds to expenses or reduces profits.”

She suggested using a hay feeder of some type to reduce waste. “If you don’t, almost half of your hay is wasted, and that’s very expensive bedding,” she said. “If you want to bed cows, put a corn stalk bale out and let them tear it up.”

Cradle-type hay feeders are lightweight and easy to move, but waste about 15% of hay because there’s nothing to catch dropped hay. “Cows are sloppy eaters and will pull out more than they can chew at one time,” said Felix. “A wagon-type feeder isn’t much better – their heads are inside the feeder for part of the time, but they still pull a lot of hay out and waste it on the ground.”

More desirable are ring feeders, which are bulky and more difficult to move but are far better for reducing hay waste. “With a regular round ring feeder, there’s about 6% waste,” said Felix. “A cone-type feeder reduces waste to about 3.5%. You can reduce waste with a cone feeder because any hay that comes out drops into the bottom instead of being pulled out onto the ground. The cows can still pick it up to eat it.”

Hay storage methods also influence loss. “In hay that’s stored outside, even wrapped hay, there’s a 5% to 35% loss,” said Felix. “That changes depending on the bale size and whether it’s a round or square bale. With net-wrapped hay stored on the ground compared to tarped hay on pallets, there’s a huge difference in waste. With tarped hay on a pallet the loss is about 4% to 7%.”

Dr. Amanda Grev, forage specialist, University of Maryland Extension, urges farmers to recognize that hay quality varies widely, both among and within forages. “Forage quality is essential for high rates of gain and production,” she said. “Forage quality is the basis of rations and will have an impact on animal performance, consumption, profit margins and how much supplemental feed that may be required.”

The terms forage quality and forage nutritive value are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t the same. “Forage nutritive value is the concentration of available nutrients including energy, protein, fiber, minerals and vitamins,” Grev said. “Forage quality is a broader term and includes nutritive value plus other factors.”

Forage quality is influenced by factors including palatability, intake, digestibility, nutritive value and anti-quality factors – compounds that may cause problems.

What makes good hay?

Hay quality is influenced by species, such as this swath with bird’s-foot trefoil, a nutritious legume that thrives in poor soil. Photo by Sally Colby

Dry matter is the key to balancing rations. “Pasture contains a higher concentration of water so dry matter is lower. Pasture is about 10% to 25% dry matter,” Grev noted. “Hay has been cut and dried before baling, so a lot of water has left the forage. Hay contains less water and much higher percentage of dry matter – usually 80% to 90% dry matter.”

A variety of factors influence forage quality. “Maturity is the greatest determinant of nutritional value,” she said. “When forages are vegetative, they’re smaller, leafier and have higher energy and more protein.”

When forage is mature, cell walls that have grown to keep the crop upright result in greater stem concentration, higher fiber concentration and lower energy and protein.

As cutting dates for stored forage advance to later in the season, growth becomes more mature. This results in decreased intake levels and digestibility. Mature forage results in lower intake and lower digestibility.

In general, leaves are higher quality than stems. As hay matures, the stems become over-mature. However, leaves can be lost during the hay making process, especially when hay is overly dry.

Differences in forage quality are also due to differences in species. Cool season grasses such as orchardgrass and fescue are different than warm season grasses such as bermudagrass, and those are different than legumes like alfalfa, clover and bird’s-foot trefoil.

“Legumes tend to be higher in energy and crude protein,” said Grev. “Warm season grasses tend to be lower in crude protein compared to cool season grasses. Legumes are lower in fiber, and warm season grasses are higher in total fiber. Legumes are higher in minerals, especially calcium, and generally higher in relative feed value.” These factors can be affected by maturity.

Another forage quality factor is soil fertility. “Soil pH can affect the availability of nutrients in the soil,” said Grev. “Fertilization of grasses with adequate nitrogen increases yield and crude protein levels.”

The time of year and time of day forage is cut also influences hay quality. “Forage quality parameters fluctuate over time,” said Grev. “One example is non-structural carbohydrate levels that tend to accumulate during the day and are used by the plant overnight.”

Field conditions during drying, baling and weathering during storage also influence forage quality.

The only way to assess forage nutritional value is through forage testing. “Forage testing allows for accurate quality assessment of quality,” said Grev. “Understand forage quality and focus on key values such as fiber, total energy and crude protein.”

by Sally Colby