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Waste less hay

You wouldn't grow a corn crop and leave half of it on the ground or let it rot in storage. Yet, lots of growers do that on forage ground, particularly when it comes to making, storing, and feeding hay.

University of Missouri-Columbia forage specialist Rob Kallenbach says if you do a good job, you can deliver 75% or more of a forage produced to the animals. The average, he guesstimates, is probably about 30% due to untimely cutting, poor storage systems, and wasteful feeding practices.


The first thing you need to do correct is to cut hay on time, Kallenbach says. If you are a few weeks late on alfalfa, it's the same as cutting it on time and getting it rained on. And, on time is earlier than most people think.

“Typically, we try to make grass hay before the seed head emerges, at the boot stage,” says Kallenbach. “In Missouri, that's about mid-May, and that's 30 to 60 days before most people start.

“People don't do it in May because of the fear of rain,” he explains. “If you cut hay in May and it gets rained on, it's still better than cutting it in June, and it's much better than July. You may get fewer bales in May, but there's a lot more nutritive value packed into it. So make it on time, or you will leave a lot of quality on the table.”

Kallenbach says your strategy should be that when it is about May 10, start looking for windows to make hay. If it's raining every day, don't cut. “We do get windows of dry days even in May. But if it gets a little wet, I don't get all stressed out about that either.”

Rake hay at 35% to 40% moisture to conserve all the leaves. Any dryer and the leaves will shatter. Then bale hay at 16% to 18% moisture — no wetter than 18%, he says.

“Another thing about making hay on time, in May if at all possible, is it lets that land fall back into a grazing system later in the summer. I may need to graze that field in July or August. If I make the hay late, that is less likely to happen,” Kallenbach notes.

Cover It Up

His Missouri forage colleague, Justin Sexten, adds that as far as storing hay goes, the very best thing is to put it under roof. Storage losses in that system will be as low as 2% to 4%. You can do almost that well outside if you put hay bales on a rock pad and cover it with a trap.

“If you store hay uncovered on dirt, you can have hay losses as high as 30% to 35% or even higher,” says Sexten. “Putting it under a tree or in a waterway is the worst thing you can do. Believe it or not, we see people do that.

“You can pay for a lot of rock pads and tarps in a hurry with the hay you save by using them,” he says.

If the cost of hay is $50 per ton and you have 35% loss in storage, that hay is actually costing $70 a ton or more.

Or, says Kallenbach, “My calculation on grass hay is that with the cost of fertilizing and baling, it costs about $90 a ton to produce it. When hay was $35 a ton, maybe you could afford the losses. But now, you can't.”

Some things about storing hay don't cost anything. For instance, putting bales on high ground where water drains away quickly should be standard procedure. Or, butting round bales up tight together, end to end, protects against weather damage. And lining them up north to south so the ends get most of the sunlight will help them dry.

You should also make the biggest bale possible, as big as you can handle, says Sexten. This gives more layers of protection for the inside hay. And pack as much hay as possible in the middle of the bale, where it is protected most. Set your baler to make as tight a core as possible.

Sexten adds one final note. If you have a good place to store just part of your hay inside, put the best hay in there, your second or third cutting. By making this small change, you protect more hay value.

As for feeding losses of hay, a lot of them come in the fall, when the ground may be wet and muddy and cows can trample the hay.

So Kallenbach wonders why more producers don't consider feeding hay to their cows in August and September, which are typically dryer months.

Cows Don't Need A B&B

Given the chance, cows will eat a lot more hay than they need, says University of Missouri grazing expert Rob Kallenbach.

“You need to control the feeding of hay, especially to cows,” he says. “If you give cows unlimited access to hay, it becomes what I call bed-and-breakfast hay. They will eat some and lay on the rest.”

The best way to control intake is to figure out how much feed the cows actually need, based on their size, stage of pregnancy, and time of year. Then, deliver that exact amount to them. You'll need to do a forage analysis on your hay and other feed ingredients, and deliver the required nutrients.

“Generally speaking, an average cow needs 30 to 35 pounds of hay a day, but she'll eat a lot more if you let her,” Kallenbach says.

Another way to restrict hay intake is to limit the amount of time cows can eat by keeping them away from the bale feeders for part of the day. “Cows will waste feed simply because they can,” he concludes.

While you do that, stockpile some pastures for grazing later in the fall and winter. You will likely waste less feed and salvage more of the nutritive value of the forage you grow that way.

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