When helping forage growers, we typically talk about how to make the most hay or get the most for it. After a substantial dip in hay acres and one of the worst seasons on record, many livestock farms and ranches need tips on how to get the most out of their hay.

Many of these producers have very little hay to get them through this winter. Some will haul hay from off the farm. Others will try to make do with their own forage inventory.

There are many ways to stretch limited hay supplies. For years, Extension professionals and industry leaders have promoted the use of supplemental feed supplies and strategies for extending the grazing season. Those are among the most widely used and cost-effective strategies. Yet, sometimes they just aren’t enough. Here are others to consider:

Restrict access to feeding areas. Recent Midwestern research indicates that mature cows can have their access to hay restricted to eight hours without loss in weight or body condition score. In that study, this strategy helped stretch hay by an extra 15%. Yet restricting access can be taken too far.

In this same research, the cows’ body condition scores and weights were reduced when their access to hay was restricted to only four hours. It is important to manage young and thin animals separate from older ones in better condition. This will also avoid situations where “boss” animals root out thinner and less-dominant animals.

It is critically important to feed good-quality hay when restricting the animals’ access. Every bite has to count. Be sure to test forage quality using a lab accredited by the National Forage Testing Association and consult with a nutritionist or Extension professional to ensure that the quality is sufficient.

Use a good feeder. Feeding-related losses can be substantial when hay is fed on the ground or feed pad without any device to keep animals from treading or soiling it (see table). Using a hay ring or feeder that limits the animals’ access to the hay can reduce these losses. For example, research has shown that the conventional hay ring can keep feeding losses below 10%. Newer, cone-style hay feeders can elevate hay off the ground and further reduce feeding losses.

Unroll round bales or flake-off rectangular bales and feed directly on the ground. With careful management, this can also be done with relatively little waste. To minimize loss, feed only what animals can clean up in less than eight hours and choose a new site each day.

Capture nutrients. The value of nutrients in a hay bale is no longer insignificant (see graphs). By using a feed pad, one can more easily collect and spread remaining nutrients. If feeding in pastures, pick a new feeding site each day and be strategic about spots picked. Avoid feeding near trees, mineral feeders or water sources to decrease the rate at which nutrients tend to concentrate in those areas. Avoid feeding in wet areas or areas where waste could wash into streams or ponds.

Keep those valuable nutrients on the farm and put them where they are needed most.