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A grazier’s confession: Feeding hay has its benefits

Johnny R. Rogers for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 August 2018
Cows in pasture

As a grazier and advocate for improved grazing management, much of my time is spent emphasizing the negative aspects of hay feeding.

Many experts share my opinion that making/feeding hay is the most expensive item in many cow-calf production budgets and serves as a burden for many cattle operations. It should be noted there are two issues to consider: making hay and feeding hay. Each should be evaluated separately to determine the best approach for each operation.

Operations seeking to lower production costs have sold their hay equipment, improved grazing management and purchased the hay needed for their herds. After spending so much time demonizing hay feeding, I must confess there are some positive attributes when feeding a limited amount of hay in grazing systems.

Stocking rate

When considering factors that influence grazing system profitability, stocking rate is always near the top. Stocking rate is the pounds of livestock live-weight grazed on a ranch annually. Land and its forage have a cost, and the more animals grazing the land provide more revenue to absorb these and other expenses.

Every ranch has a carrying capacity, which is the maximum stocking rate that can be used without degrading the natural resources (forage, water, soil, etc.). Since the carrying capacity has both seasonal and annual fluctuations, the stocking rate must be flexible.

Many operations will use hay to fill seasonal forage shortages and have found planning for 30 to 90 days of hay feeding allows them to run a higher stocking rate and, ultimately, be more profitable. The alternative would be to run fewer cows and utilize less forage when supplies are abundant. Both methods can be effective, and evaluating variable stocking rates and cash flow systems will allow you to find the best option.

Price cycles

A few savvy operations will vary their stocking rate with cattle price cycles. Since hay price is relatively constant, they will run more cows during favorable cattle price years. Their production cost does increase with additional hay feeding, but the extra cows generate enough revenue to more than cover this cost.

As cattle prices fall, they reduce cow numbers, feed less hay and graze more days annually. This capitalizes on better returns during the good years and lowers production cost when prices are lower.

Fall hay feeding

Most operations graze available fall/winter pasture followed with feeding hay until spring green-up. A new method being adopted in humid environments is to feed hay in the fall and stockpile pastures. This works great in the Fescue Belt, as it improves forage production by capturing cool-season forage fall growth. More forage production means less hay will be fed, and stockpiling forage yields a rested plant with deeper roots, which improves soil health.

Fall hay feeding is advantageous in fall-calving herds. A calving pasture can be set stocked with no rotation, reducing the risk of calves being left during a rotation. Labor is better utilized as cows are checked and new calves processed during hay feeding. Usually, fall weather is drier, reducing the equipment impact on the soil, and everyone’s tractors start better during warmer fall temperatures.

Furthermore, days are longer, so less hay feeding after dark, and twine/wrap are much easier to remove when they are not frozen.

Folks in fescue country know when tall fescue is actively growing, it is producing toxins detrimental to cattle performance, but toxin levels decline in the late fall/early winter. Furthermore, the hay curing process reduces toxin levels, and fall hay feeding could provide a method to mitigate fescue toxicosis. Of course, using other hay types would further reduce toxin intake, but this option is not always feasible.

Stockpiled grasses are usually higher-quality than hay, and better forage will be available during the breeding season for fall-calving herds (December to February). Feeding hay while you have standing forage may seem strange, but this practice can be valuable. Evaluate your forage production and see if changing the timing of hay feeding could work for you.

Added nutrients

Feeding hay brings nutrients into a grazing system and can translocate nutrients if hay is made/fed on the ranch. It’s a common practice to choose a hay-feeding site and continue to use this location. A good site is high in the landscape with vegetative buffers to protect surface water and other sensitive areas. Equipment access is important, thus a feeding area near gates and hay storage is attractive.

However, even with a well-selected location, nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, etc.) will accumulate at this site. Cattle will urinate and defecate where they eat, and most hay nutrients are deposited near the feeding area. Conversely, cattle grazing stockpiled forages with frequent moves (every one to three days) will distribute these nutrients onto grasslands.

Many producers have changed their management to more efficiently use these imported hay nutrients. Extending the grazing season with stockpiled or annual forages leads to less time in hay feeding areas. Unrolling hay works for some operations that can feed hay daily. For those with limited labor, they unroll when possible and rotate feeding areas to locations that need renovation.

The disturbance and improved fertility, along with reseeding, can increase forage production. Consider using hay fertilizer value to enhance long-term pasture productivity.

Please do not misunderstand my message. Most cattle operations make and therefore feed too much hay. They need to take steps to reduce this costly input, and stockpiling forage for winter grazing is a great place to start. A well-designed grazing plan may call for limited hay feeding, and this amount can be purchased. Use this hay to its full advantage and feeding some hay is not a bad thing.  end mark

PHOTO: Grazing stockpiled grass is a great way to minimize hay requirements. Photo by Johnny Rogers.

Johnny R. Rogers
  • Johnny R. Rogers

  • Amazing Grazing Program Coordinator
  • North Carolina State University
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