Editor’s Note: Maximizing the hay you have was the subject of our last Extension Expertise column (November 2011). It mentioned ways to reduce feeding loss, like restricting access to feeding areas, feeding just enough hay and utilizing a good hay feeder. This month’s column reiterates how important hay feeders are, what types are available and how to make the most of them.

Round-bale feeding losses can range from 3% to more than 40% depending on the feeding system or lack thereof. When round bales are simply put out onto pasture, animals eat some and, in the process, pull the bales apart, leaving hay to be trampled on. Several studies have shown that animals allowed to feed from a big round bale with no feeder will waste 30-45% of the bale.

One simple solution is to put an electric wire such as polywire, with a battery-operated charger, around the bale. The system can cost as little as $50 and reduce hay loss during feeding from 40% to 20%. (This is a $9-15 savings per bale fed.) Some farmers have put bales in rows and used electric fencing to allocate forage as they would on pasture. This saves having to start a tractor over winter to move hay bales.

But hay-bale feeders cut feeding losses to a greater extent. The most common type – and least expensive – is a ring feeder. A Michigan feeding trial allotted 40 beef cattle to different feeder types and found the following losses: 3% with a feeder with cradle, 6% with a ring type, and 11% with a trailer. All losses were considered low and attributed to high-quality round bales from second cutting (mostly leaves) stored inside a barn. Generally, differences would be about twice the numbers shown.

A cradle feeder (see photo) is recommended because cattle have to reach through and up guards to get hay. Any hay they drop stays within the feeder and will be eaten eventually. Hay losses from a ring-type feeder are higher because cattle will often grab bites and back up to eat, dropping the uneaten portions on the ground to be trampled. It won’t take much savings this year to pay for a hay feeder.

If you are buying hay,it would be worthwhile to look for bales, round or square, made with a cutter on the baler front to reduce hay length to 2-4”.

Pennsylvania data have shown that recut hay in bales, while no benefit to preservation of the hay, reduces feed losses and increases feed intake and average daily gains of stocker animals eating it. It appears that, when hay is cut to about 4” lengths, animals waste less because the hay is about bite-size. They also eat more and the increased intake results in increased weight gain. So recut hay would be worth about 5-10% more than traditionally baled hay.

Once you have your feeder, consider moving it around when feeding hay on pasture. Potassium, now one of the more expensive nutrients, is little utilized in hay and excreted. Moving feeders around pastures will more evenly spread the urine and the nutrients it contains.

Good management can reduce storage and feeding losses, allowing 80% or more of the hay to be consumed by animals. Lax management can easily cause hay storage and feeding losses of more than 50% and double the cost of hay consumed by animals. Lastly, remember to value the nutrients contained in hay, animal urine and feces; spreading them around fields will minimize fertilizer needs.