An inexpensive hay test can be the best guidance as to how much supplemental feed is required for a beef herd, says Tryon Wickersham, Texas AgriLife Research scientist.

“With feeding programs being one of the most costly components of a cattle operation, every penny must be spent precisely, especially during these historic drought conditions,” says Wickersham.

Many ranchers may be feeding more hay or supplement than they have to – or the wrong type of supplement, he says. A hay test, which can cost $50 or less, will reduce the likelihood of both situations. He verified that fact in recent research on bermudagrass hays, finding that, as quality increased, so did intake and digestion.

“However, there must be a balance between optimizing quality, quantity and cost when producing hay,” says Wickersham. “These observations from the studies clearly demonstrate the value of purchasing and marketing hay based on nutritive value.”

A hay test can provide information on crude protein content and digestibility, and can serve as a more accurate gauge as to how much supplement, and what type, to buy and feed.

“Producers with higher-quality hay may want to look at lower-priced energy supplements and reducing hay availability as a means of conserving forage, reducing cost and maintaining body-condition score. With the current hay prices, you don’t want to give them unlimited access to hay. You don’t want to put 10 bales out and come back 10 days later.”

Producers with lower-quality hay need to provide supplements with adequate levels of energy and protein, says Wickersham.

Bulk feeds can be an efficient method of feeding cow herds, but an infrastructure has to be in place, he adds.

“Drought demands that producers find the cheapest source of energy they can realistically handle and safely feed. Unfortunately, cheap is more than it used to be.”