Get Hay Smart

These four steps can cut your feed bill without sacrificing body condition.

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Image by Becky Mills

As spring finally moved into parts of the Midwest, ‌cattle producers had seen prices on some hay supplies increase more than 10 times compared to ‌year-ago levels.

A weekly hay auction manager at Dyersville, Iowa, reported even low-quality hay prices had skyrocketed. Dale Leslein told DTN staff reporter Russ Quinn: “I had a load last spring only bring $10 per ton. That same [type] hay is now bringing $120 per ton.”

Top-quality dairy hay, he added, was bringing $200 to $250 per ton.

Missouri’s Eric Bailey says if those prices aren’t a reality check for producers feeding hay, he’s not sure what is.

“Here in the fescue belt, any resource limitations we have are due to us overstocking,” says Bailey, cattle nutritionist with the University of Missouri.

“We have this historical stocking rate we go by that says 3 acres to the cow. But, that stocking rate was established when we had 1,000-pound cows. Cows are bigger now, and because there are more pounds of beef eating off of the same amount of acreage, we think there’s a resource limitation. Really, it’s a mostly man-made limitation we’re fighting.”

Bailey notes four straightforward ways to cut your annual hay bill without sacrificing body condition.

1. Reduce the Need. Too many producers carry cows that should be culled, the nutritionist says. He has zero tolerance for a cow that fails to conceive.

“No cow should be given a second chance,” he stresses, “otherwise, you perpetuate mediocrity in the whole herd. If she fails to conceive in your farming system, she’ll likely fail on retry.”

Bailey adds even if the cow does conceive, the heifer she produces is also likely to have a less-than-stellar conception rate. It sets the whole herd up for lower average conception rates.

Simply put, every cow should produce one calf every 365 days. If she doesn’t, she needs to be culled from the herd.

2. Feed to Real Weights. It’s important to only feed ‌‌enough hay to support the true weight of the cows in the herd. Bailey knows most producers guess at cow weights, but he encourages you to be more realistic.

“There are more 1,600-pound cows than 1,000-pound cows running around these days,” he stresses. “Nutritional needs vary greatly, and we can waste a lot of hay not knowing the real weights of our cows.”

One good way to have an accurate estimate is to look at weights on the sale ticket for culls. This is likely representative of the rest of the cows unless that cull is unusually poor.

3. Note the Production Phase. One good reason to ‌get the herd on a defined calving season is to make it easier to feed the right amount of hay and meet the nutritional needs at different stages of life.

Bailey says nutritional needs are at their highest for a cow between calving and rebreeding. From weaning to mid-gestation, her requirements are much lower.

“You don’t want to pump a lot of nutrients into that cow at the wrong time. It won’t help your business,” he says.

Knowing hay quality is key, he adds. A mid-gestation cow, for example, needs a ration of about 55% total digestible nutrients (TDN); a cow with a calf nursing at her side needs hay with a 65% TDN. The same holds true for protein. Mid-gestation, 7% crude protein is a good level; but that lactating cow needs 11%.

4. Use Supplements. As the ‌season moves on, Bailey says it’s important ‌to stay on top of any trend toward below-average precipitation that will affect hay supplies.

“If we see that situation developing, I encourage producers to avoid getting into hay reserves. I really don’t like to think about feeding hay in the summer.”

He acknowledges practically every producer has the equipment to handle hay, and it’s something they are used to managing. But, byproduct feeds, Bailey says, are the best option in today’s market.

Look for things like soy hulls, wheat midds or distillers grains. Consider what is the most cost-effective in your area. Byproduct feedstuffs, unlike hay, are nutrient dense. Yes, you need bins or bays to feed them, and you need the equipment to handle them. But, augmenting cows’ diets with feedstuffs can almost always keep up body condition and conception rates more economically than hay.

Bailey reemphasizes it’s important to feed based as much on weight as possible. He recommends a supplement make up no more than 1% of a cow’s body weight in her daily diet. That means limiting the feed.

“A cow with unrestricted access will easily consume 2.5% of her body weight a day,” he says. But, fed at the correct rate, that supplement will be a small enough percentage of the overall diet that it can be given without causing digestive upsets.

For More Information:

To see prices for byproducts in Missouri, visit the feed price listing at the University of Missouri’s Ag Extension Bulletin Board at


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