The answer to optimal hay solutions is debated amongst producers young and old, from machinery to method to forage type and variety.
And like all on-farm endeavors, the answer is most often specific to a producer’s operation, equipment budget and preference, local weather conditions, time and plan for feedout.
For most hay producers in Missouri, forage will be harvested and stored for future feedout in one of four ways: large round bales, large square bales, small square bales or baleage.
The most common way to store hay in the U.S. is the large round bale. While convenient from both an equipment ownership and custom harvesting standpoint, the method of storage does have drawbacks.
University of Missouri Agriculture economist Wesley Tucker told producers in attendance at the 2019 Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas (KOMA) Beef Conference that the greatest catalyst for change in the beef industry over the past 50 years has been the round baler.
Tucker asked producers to think about what their grandfathers and great-grandfathers said about cattle stocking rates and how closely producers are following the teachings of previous generations of beef producers.
“How did we stock pastures before the round baler?” Tucker asked attendees. “If you asked your great-grandpa he would have told you to never stock more cows than a pasture can handle in a dry year. Is that the same way that most of you stock pastures today? Probably not.”
The round baler, Tucker says, has allowed beef producers the opportunity to overstock and then supplement forages with purchased hay — a practice he says is hard to sustain economically long-term.
A proponent of cover crop grazing and intensive rotational management of acres rather than haying, Tucker says that aside from hay storage methods, producers should be putting more emphasis on the crops they can grow for grazing in the winter months.
University of Missouri Livestock Extension specialist Eric Bailey says that, in any instance, the least amount of metal and processing between a cow and forage, the better.
For many producers, however, stored forage is the winter feeding solution that they feel works best for their operation. And like the majority of Missouri farmers, Kody Killingsworth round bales the hay he stores. Owner of Killingsworth Farms in Seymour, he bales around 1,500 large round bales of fescue every year, primarily for feedout in his cow-calf herd.
However, when drought caused his forage production to drop, he looked into alternative options — options that ultimately led to a new business endeavor and better understanding of hay brokerage and customer preference.
“(Selling hay) kind of happened by accident,” Killingsworth says. “We decided that we would try a load of alfalfa after we ran out of grass hay. I had a few bales left and sold them to a few people who asked. Within a month’s time, I had moved five semi-loads of alfalfa.”
For shipping purposes, he says that large square bales are the most sought after by brokers and truck drivers.
“The haulers prefer (large) square bales. They are easier to stack and handle and haul better,” he says, but the goat and horse hay buyers that he typically works with would prefer small square bales.
The fourth and most expensive of the common storage options is baleage, and although it is gaining in popularity and demand, many producers are reluctant to implement the method due to the associated costs that come with the equipment to both create and store baleage or hiring a crew to custom harvest the crop.
Those who do utilize baleage find balance between the cost and the quality of the feed and time efficiency the process can provide an operation.
At the end of the day, Tucker says, livestock don’t benefit from the shape or size of a feedstuff.
“Protein and energy is what sustains a cow,” Tucker tells producers, “not how many bales you have in a lot.”