Winter-feeding of beef cows represents the greatest expense in most cow-calf enterprises. Currently high feed prices, even for hay, should cause farmers to evaluate their winter-feeding strategies to identify ways to reduce feed costs through minimizing feed waste.
In the upper Midwest, a mature cow will eat about 3 tons of hay during a common six-month winter-feeding period. Hay usage can easily be improved if the current method used for feeding is to place bales out in the pasture or lot without any type of feeder.
In that situation, the hay becomes expensive bedding for the cows. Thus winter-feed costs will be doubled, which at current prices can easily add $300 per cow.
Even when feeding hay with hay feeders, the waste can vary from 15 percent to 50 percent depending on type of feeder, significantly increasing feed costs.
Michigan State University evaluated waste from different types of hay feeders in a study. The results showed some types of feeders do a better job of reducing round-bale hay loss than others:
- A cone-type hay feeder with a solid panel at the bottom to keep any loose hay in had 3.5 percent dry-matter hay waste.
- A typical ring feeder with a panel around the bottom had 6.1 percent dry-matter waste.
- A silage feeder-type wagon had 11.4 percent dry-matter waste.
- A cradle-type feeder with slanted vertical bars so cows could access hay but not place their heads inside the feeder had 14.6 percent dry-matter waste.
A farm may currently estimate hay waste of 20 percent from using a bale ring without a solid panel. By switching to a cone-style ring feeder they could reduce overwinter hay costs by $53 dollars per head with hay costing $100 per ton. For a 20-head cow herd that would result in a total feed savings of $1,069 for the winter.
The researchers also shared observations regarding feeder design that may help reduce losses:
- Provide enough distance between the outside of the feeder and the feed. Feeders, which allow cows to be able to comfortably keep their heads within the feeder perimeter, reduce feed losses.
- Avoid bars or dividers between feeding stations. Design features which allow more access to the hay by reducing a cow’s inclination to push or butt another cow to access the hay, will reduce hay losses.
- Provide a comfortable feeding height. Cows prefer to eat when their ears are lower than the top of their shoulders, similar to how they eat grazing. Cows that reach over the top of the feeder to eat hay also tend to waste more.
- Use a hay-saver panel. Feeders designed to sit on the ground will benefit from having a solid panel at the bottom to keep hay inside the feeder.
A final tip to help reduce feed losses is to place a new bale in the feeder when only 10 percent of the previous bale is left. That will force the cows to eat a majority of the bale as well as ensure there’s adequate room for the new bale.