Hay is a precious commodity that doesn't always get the respect it deserves. Crammed along fencerows and fed buffet-style in battered rings, waste losses can mount to 50%.
The idea of mowing, raking, baling and hauling twice as much hay as he really needs doesn't hold much appeal for Dax Burchett. The Talala, Oklahoma, rancher runs an 800-head commercial cow herd with his father Larry and uncle Tim. Add 40 bulls, weaned calves and replacements, and they need nearly 3 million pounds of hay each year.
"We feed about 2,500 big round bales a year," Dax said. "And, we always put up more than we need ... running out of hay is something that stays fresh in your mind."
Hay management at Burchett Cattle Company begins with bales that are, as Dax put it, "tight as we can make them." Net wrap is used, and if there is any chance of being held over, bales get an extra wrap.
"We bale 4 x 6s weighing up to 1,200 pounds. If we're going to feed [a bale] this season, we'll use two wraps. If it may be held over, it gets three. That extra wrap costs about 50 cents, but it significantly reduces weathering."
Bales are stored at four outside locations, hedging against fire or other disasters. Sites are on well-drained high points to reduce ground-moisture wicking. Bales are placed flat end to flat end for sun exposure, with 4 feet between rows to facilitate air movement.
Most of the Burchetts' hay is bermudagrass and fescue with some crabgrass and sudangrass. A 500-bale capacity barn is used to store fertilized bermudagrass, which is the highest quality forage they harvest.
Hay is fed on a first-in, first-out basis to ensure it is used before losing quality and fits the nutritional needs of the herd.
"We start off with last year's hay and progress to the most recently baled hay as the spring-calving cows move closer to calving," Dax noted. "We'll finish up with our best hay -- barn-stored bermudagrass. That gives us hay with the highest quality, in the best condition, when cows have their highest nutritional requirements."
The most important management component when it comes to hay, Dax believes, is limit-feeding. More than 75% of the hay they feed is rolled out daily. Wet cows get 20 pounds per day, and dry cows 10, depending on stage of gestation and available standing forage.
Oklahoma State University beef specialist David Lalman likes the limit-feeding approach. He said it's "the biggest bang for your forage buck.
"By controlling intake, you can drive feeding waste down to 3 or 4%, compared to 20 to 30% when feeding free-choice every few days," he said.
Lower forage intake equals better utilization. Rumen turnover time slows for a cow consuming 20 pounds per day compared to one eating 30 pounds. Lalman explained as microbial activity and passage rates slow, cows get more nutritionally out of what they eat.
For producers who prefer to use feeders, the beef specialist's advice is simple: "Get better hay rings." Lalman reported a wide difference in waste among various hay-ring styles. Cone feeders with sheeted bottoms wasted 5 to 6% of the hay compared to 21% wasted for open-bottom ring feeders.
Heavier made, open-bottom ring feeders are priced in the $250 to $350 range. Cone feeders can cost $1,000 or more depending on design and gauge of steel, but the investment can usually be recovered due to reduced waste.
Feed cost remains the largest cow/calf profitability variable, meaning savings in this area are going straight into producers' pockets. This year, hay prices have varied widely, depending on quality and location. Large round bales of good grass hay have ranged from $50 to more than $150 each.
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