Aug. 23, 2016 08:00 AM

Round bales may just be too convenient.

That’s the premise set forth by Derrell Peel, Oklahoma State University extension livestock marketing specialist. “Hay production per beef cow has more than doubled in the past 40 years in Oklahoma,” Peel says. He attributes this trend to the fact that more hay is wasted and poor pasture management has resulted in additional days that cows need to be fed stored hay. “Round bales have probably contributed to this trend,” Peel notes.

Though round bale technology is convenient and saves labor, Peel believes it’s also these factors that encourage the production of low-quality hay along with poor storage and feeding practices. “Good pasture management and good hay management are two sides of the same coin,” he says. “Often we see mature, rank grass that was not grazed effectively being baled and fed.”

The livestock specialist notes that there are many challenges to producing, feeding, and buying round bales. Based on bale density and size, the actual weight and the cost of hay contained in a round bale can vary substantially. Peel cautions that it’s “buyer beware” when purchasing round bales on a per-bale rather than a per-ton basis.

Storage and feeding losses can mount substantially for round bales if there’s not a concerted effort to keep both in check. “Well-managed storage and feeding limit losses to 10 percent, but combined storage and feeding losses frequently range up to 50 percent or higher,” Peel says. Those higher losses occur when bales are stored uncovered, on the ground, and fed as unrolled, exposed bales, or in simple open-sided ring feeders. Storing bales inside or covered, coupled with using cone-style feeders, can cut hay wastage significantly. The best managers are in the 5 to 15 percent hay loss range.

The trifecta for nearly doubling your hay cost is the combination of low bale density, excessive dry matter and quality loss during storage, and an extreme amount of feeding waste. Peel emphasizes that beef producers need to calculate and know their loss numbers to have any hope of determining the true cost of their hay and the quantity of forage needed to meet nutritional needs.

“As important, or perhaps more so, than the quantity of hay is the quality of round bales,” Peel notes. “We see a wide range of hay qualities being fed depending on the type of forage, the management, baling conditions, and storage practices. Round bales of unknown quality and bale weight, subject to significant storage and feeding losses is wasteful, expensive, and make it very difficult to manage cow herd nutrition,” he adds.

Peel encourages producers to not let the convenience of round bales distort the need for purposeful handling, storage, and feeding. He suggests the following considerations for round bale use:

· Gauge the quantity and quality of pastures to extend grazing and minimize hay needs. Consider stockpiling pasture for fall and winter grazing. Feeding hay costs 2.5 to 5 times as much as grazing. Every day that cows graze instead of receiving hay will save 50 cents to $1.50 per head in feed costs.

· Know the quantity and quality of purchased or produced hay. Buy tons of hay . . . not bales. Weigh it and test it.

· Know how much hay cows are actually eating. Measure storage and feeding losses in order to know actual consumption and the true cost of hay.

Calculate the cost of hay nutrients compared to other supplemental feed sources. Projected record grain crops mean that energy and protein from other feed sources will likely be cheaper this winter. Supplements using grain and/or by-product feeds may actually be less expensive than poor-quality hay.