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Low Cost Hay Storage
and Feeding System

Jim Gerrish

As producers are out mowing and baling hay, it is time to also be thinking about storage and feeding that hay. In most parts of the Midwest, some quantity of hay is needed almost every year. How much hay is actually needed is a key question to consider. The Missouri Management Information Record System indicates that the average beef producer feeds hay for approximately 140 days each year. Weather records for the past 21 years at FSRC indicate and average 37 day snow cover with only about 7 days of snow deeper than 6 inches. Very clearly we don't need to feed hay because everything is covered with snow. We have a great deal of information about stockpiling tall fescue and grazing well into January or even February but eventually we do find it necessary to feed some hay.

Minimizing the amount of hay fed is a good management strategy. A recent case study from Ohio State University examined production and financial records from a number of beef farms. Some of the farms made money and some lost money. In looking for a common thread or a predictor of the relative profitability of a cow-calf operation, the investigators found that amount of hay fed was the best common denominator. The more hay fed, the greater the likelihood that the farm was losing money. The more hay fed, the greater the likelihood that the farm was making money. Several other states have reported similar findings. If we are going to feed hay, we need to make it as least costly an operation as possible. Let's look at minimizing storage and feeding costs in a beef cattle operation.

Low Cost Storage

The vast majority of hay fed to beef cows in the Midwest is in the form of large round bales of grass dominant hay. The large round bale emerged in the early 1970's as the preferred hay package for two main reasons, reduced labor requirements and the ability to store the bale outdoors. However, much research was done in the 1970's and early 1980's which reported dry matter losses of 25% to 40% for outdoor stored bales. Almost immediately producers were told to store hay in barns or cover bales with plastic or tarps. We went through the gyrations of covering big stacks, little stacks, and individual bales. The industry developed bales sleeves and net wrap and other protective coverings. We were doing a lot of things to make an expensive, but frequently low value, product even more costly. It was time to take a breath and think about what we were doing. Let's think about why we had gotten where we were.

Much of the hay storage work done in the last 25 years was done with alfalfa hay. Why? Because that is the crop most agronomists and engineers prefer to work with. It can grow several crops in a year for replications and has a high market value. What relevance does it have to most hay used in beef cow systems? Very little. Most hay fed is grass dominant which has very different water shedding characteristics than does legume hay. Losses of 40% in big bales of alfalfa are very common but exceedingly rare in grass hay.

In those early years we were working with first and second generation baler technology which did not consistently produce bales of uniform shape and density. Those bales were much more prone to spoilage. The third and fourth generation balers we use today produce very uniform bales that are much more weather resistant than the bales of the 1970's.

Part of that changing technology also has to do with how we tie bales off. I do not usually go into personal reminiscing in these newsletters but in this case it makes a very good example. From 1972 through 1978, I bales over 30,000 bales with a Vermeer 605C baler pulled with a cabless tractor. A great deal of that hay was red clover on crop rotation land in southern Illinois. The baler had a manual rope control twine arm for applying twine to the bale. The main goal of the operator in tying off a bale of red clover is to get out of the dust cloud as quickly as possible. Hence, we end up with twine spacing 8 to 12 inches apart and produce an uneven bale surface that is prone to spoilage. The modern baler has electric or hydraulic twine tie and we use tractors with cabs making it very easy and comfortable to make a uniform 4 inch twine spacing across the bale. From work done at FSRC in the late 1980's, we found that with hay that was approximately 30-40% legume and 60-70% grass, a twine tied bale with less than 4 inch twine spacing had the same storage characteristics as net wrap bales stored indoors or outdoors. In either case, storage loss was consistently less than 4% total dry matter with no difference in crude protein and ADF between the outer 2 inch layer and the inner 18 inches.

The summary of this discussion is that whereas with 1970's technology it may have made economic sense to cover bales or store them indoors, with 1990 baler technology a twine tied bale left outdoors is not significantly different from a bale stored indoors from a cow's perspective. Every time we handle a large round bale of hay we incur about $2 equipment and labor cost. If we accept that large round bales can be stored outdoors if properly tied, the need for barn or plastic is eliminated and handling costs can be greatly reduced by moving the bale only once between baling and feeding. Remember the key issue. We are discussing a grass dominant bale of uniform shape and a twine spacing of less than 4 inches. If you are producing legume dominant hay, it will still be advisable to store them inside or under a temporary cover.

Low Cost Feeding

The best ways to reduce feeding costs are to minimize bale handling and feeding waste. Continuing with the discussion in the last section, if bales can be stored outside with minimal storage loss then the storage site can also be the feeding site. This is the basis of the space-bale feeding system we have been using at FSRC for the past 4 winters. In this system, we move the bales immediately after baling to the site where they will be fed. In a rotational grazing system where we are cutting hay from paddocks within the system, we will typically feed the hay back on the same paddock where it was harvested. This keeps soil nutrients on the same general area where they were harvested from. If the hay is harvested from one area but will be fed in another that will also work.

The actual feeding arrangement that we have used consists of bales set on 20 to 25 ft centers in 1 to 6 rows depending upon how many head are in the group. After the bales are set, a temporary electric fence is used to exclude the stock for the remainder of the grazing season. When hay feeding begins, the appropriate number of bales are exposed with ring feeders over them and the cattle are allowed access. We generally like to figure 12 to 15 cows per ring, depending upon cow and bale size. This number of cows will usually consume a 1000 lb bale in 2 to 3 days. Hay wastage will increase significantly if the cattle are allowed more hay than they can readily consume in 2 to 3 days. I personally prefer feeding new bales every other day. This means that I prefer a 1000 lb bale to a 1500 lb bale. The smaller bale means that you bale more of them, but feeding waste is reduced. The argument can be made that not all of the cattle need to be able to get to the feeder at the same time and thus a 1500 lb bale can also be consumed in 2 days. There is a considerable amount of research from around the country that indicates that cow performance is not as good where hay feeding space is limited compared to a situation where all animals can access the hay at the same time. Younger cows will consistently suffer if ring access is limited. Another benefit to the shorter time spent feeding each bale is that the trampling damage and mud development is reduced.

The labor required for feeding bales this way is significantly less than conventional feeding systems where hay is hauled from a storage site to a feeding site. In the space bale system actual winter feeding time for 6 bales is typically around 10 minutes while feeding the bales from a storage site located 1/4 mile away and using a 6-bale trailer is 30 to 40 minutes. Obviously time is required at baling time to set the bales but it is the same time which would normally be used to move the bales to a storage site and is significantly less when compared to a barn stacking operation.

While any type of fencing may be used to protect the bales from the cattle during the non-feeding and feeding season, we have found poly-tape and step-in posts to be very effective. The fence can be moved very quickly and is highly visible to the livestock, as well as being very effective. To use step-in post in frozen ground requires a post with a fairly small diameter spike and a broad foot piece that accommodates a snowy boot. For corners where a single post not stuck all the way in frozen ground may not hold up, we have made concrete corner post anchors. We make these by slicing 5-gal buckets into 2 inch thick rings and using these as concrete forms. A piece of 3/16 diameter tube set in the center makes a hole for the step-in post. A square of hog panel set in the concrete makes a nice handle.

A discussion of low quality hay may also be helpful. Cattle will not clean up low quality hay fed in ring feeders very well. The cattle don't perform well and you are left with a mess to clean up behind them. Although, I don't recommend unrolling ray as a preferred feeding method due to the waste, it is probably the best method of feeding low quality hay. This is particularly true if you hay some thinner sods on low fertility sites. The wasted hay will contribute to soil protection and nutrient replacement and the seed normally found in low quality hay will help establish vegetation on those sites. If hay is to be unrolled, it should be fed on a daily basis as waste increases almost exponentially as the quantity of hay fed per cow exceeds their daily requirement.

Why discuss hay feeding in the July newsletter? Because efficient management takes advance planning and doesn't happen by accident.

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