Reduce Hay Losses Through Smart Harvesting, Storing, Feeding

As margins are tight in the cow-calf business, it's important to do all you can to reduce feed waste and control costs.

As margins are tight in the cow-calf business, it's critical to take all the steps you can to reduce feed waste and control costs. One of the places losses can be excessive is hay harvest, storage and feeding.

These losses can be both from pounds of total dry matter available for feeding and quality losses of protein, energy and other nutritional components of hay, says Joe Sellers, Iowa State University Extension beef specialist. If you purchase hay for $80 per ton, the actual cost of hay consumed by the cow will range from $88.88 with 10% storage and feeding loss, to $114.29 if losses are 30%.

You also want to look at harvesting losses. "Harvesting hay under undesirable conditions can lead to losses in the hay field," he notes. "Hay that is baled too wet may have losses even if mold and other quality issues are not obvious. If hay is raked numerous times leaf losses increase, reducing quality."

Losses on hay stored outside can exceed 30%

In addition, heat damaged protein is an indication of damage to hay that is baled too wet. This damage can be discovered with forage lab analysis and rations can be balanced based on available protein.

Covering hay with tarps, storing in barns and using net wrap all can reduce hay storage losses. Barn storage can hold losses to 5%, while losses outside may exceed 30%. If hay is stored outside, it is important to select a well-drained site that reduces water "wicking" into the bales, says Sellers. It is best to orient the rows of bales north to south with 3 feet between rows to allow the sun to dry the sides of the bales. Ends of bales in the row should be butted against each other solidly.

"Reducing soil-to-bale contact is something you need to do. That's a plus," he adds. "Storing on a gravel pad, on pallets or tires can reduce storage losses. Net wrapping has helped reduce storage and handling losses, but choosing storage sites with poor drainage can lose part of that advantage."

Feeding losses typically range from 4% to 15%

A recent study by Michigan State University researchers found hay feeding losses that ranged from under 4% to nearly 15% depending on what type of feeder was used. The difference between a bale ring with a bottom panel and the same ring with a cone was only 2.6% in this study, with high quality hay and close monitoring of the hay allotment. Staff at ISU's McNay Research farm in southern Iowa are conducting demonstrations this winter/spring, to look at different feeders and losses with lower quality hay.

Sellers says it's not uncommon to have hay feeding losses from 15% to 25% when large amounts of hay are offered to cows. Many different feeding systems can reduce waste if they are well managed and hay is allotted to the cows properly. The Iowa Beef Center Web site has a very helpful publication prepared by researchers across the U.S. called "Minimizing Losses in Hay Storage and Feeding." To learn more go to

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