Feeding livestock hay in the winter may be an inevitable expense to an operation, but paying for wasted hay doesn’t have to be. Choosing an appropriate feeding practice and adhering to a strict feeding schedule can help keep hay waste to a minimum this season.

Charlie Ellis with the University of Missouri Extension says feeding practices will vary with climate, labor availability, and ultimately, producer preference. Therefore, the field specialist in agricultural engineering shares some advantages and disadvantages of the following strategies.

Cone and ring feeders. According to Ellis, cone feeders are the most efficient at minimizing hay waste. Sheeted ring feeders allow more waste than cone feeders, and open ring feeder are the least efficient design of the three. Nonetheless, placing any type of feeder on an elevated surface in a well-drained area will reduce hay waste in general.

In addition to feeder design, the type of bale will factor into hay waste around a feeder. Ellis says square bales produce less waste, whereas large round bales contribute more waste — as much as 45% of the bale.

Processing bales. Another method for feeding hay is to process bales and add the material to a mixed ration. Ellis says this approach allows farmers to mix low and medium quality forage into feed without animals sorting out higher quality hay. Processing bales can also dilute forage with high nitrate levels so it is safe to feed to livestock.

One problem with this practice is the forage particle size after processing. Smaller forage particles dissolve easier in the rumen, and this can cause cows to feel hungrier faster. Ellis says this may lead livestock to eat more feed, which will incur greater feed costs. Additionally, processing bales can be a costly practice in itself.

Unrolling bales. Ellis notes there are many benefits to spreading hay over a large area as opposed to using a feeding cone, ring, or a feedbunk. For instance, all cows will have equal access to hay, and unrolling bales can reduce hoof damage and compaction that could occur in more isolated feeding areas. This method also allows a more even distribution of nutrients from hay and manure across the field.

Limit access to feed. If unrolling bales isn’t an option, Ellis says limiting animals’ access to hay in cone and ring feeders or feedbunks will help alleviate losses. To do this, provide one bale per 10 cows if using a cone or ring feeder, or allocate about 30 inches of bunk space per cow if using a feedbunk. Divide the herd into groups according to animals’ age and pecking order. Then, feed cattle once a day at the same time of day.

Ellis recommends feeding hay that has been stored outside first to prevent further spoilage and improve palatability. Moreover, make sure animals clean up most of the previous day’s hay before allocating more. Overall, Ellis notes it may be necessary to cull aggressive animals that interfere with other cows’ ability to access feed.

Amber Friedrichsen

Amber Friedrichsen served as the 2021 and 2022 Hay & Forage Grower summer editorial intern. She currently attends Iowa State University where she is majoring in agricultural communications and agronomy.