Jan. 13, 2020 09:18 AM

When it comes to providing forage for livestock in the winter, there are generally two methods: You can provide forage in the form of traditional hay, or you can feed it by grazing standing forage. Both methods work depending on the situation, and I’m not going to try to convince you that either way is better, only that there are things to consider when choosing your approach.

Lower cost option

The greatest benefit of using standing forage is that you can reduce your expenses. Feeding costs are a major operating expense. If properly managed, the amount of hay needed during winter can be cut in half, depending on available forage quantity and quality. However, this may not be an option if you’re in an area that is usually covered with snow for a portion of the year.

If you don’t have to worry about snow cover, you’ll still need to consider the forage quality. Once forage goes dormant, the quality will begin to drop. Supplemental feeding will have to take place at this point.

When hay is in play

If you bale hay yourself, hopefully you’re capturing that forage at a high quality and saving it for use later. This allows you to know what hay you have and where it came from. The downside is that there are significant costs associated with the supplies used to bale, the maintenance and cost of running the equipment, your labor, and let’s not forget the opportunity costs.

Could your time be better used elsewhere rather than running the equipment? Is there a better use of the forage that you baled?

Purchasing your hay from an outside source is another alternative that is widely used. I often recommend this method to the cattle producers I work with. In most years, this option allows them to capitalize on the forages someone else has grown and then market it through a higher valued, marketable item — beef.

By optimizing the forages they grow on an annual basis, and supplementing with hay that is brought in, producers are able to boost stocking capacity while bringing in the nutrients captured through the hay. Again, this is true in most but not all years. Some years when the price of hay is high and the price of cattle is low, it may work out better for a cattle operation to bale its own forage for hay, if it’s available.

When it comes down to it, there really isn’t a way to compare baling hay versus growing forage. It’s really about looking for that optimal way to use your grown forage. There are benefits and drawbacks to baling or grazing forage. Knowing what works best requires an understanding of your inputs and the value of your marketed product.

This article appeared in the January 2020 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 11.

Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.