Jill Larson for Progressive Cattle Published on 22 August 2019


As the days get shorter and morning temperatures stay cooler in many parts of the country, producers are reminded that fall and winter are on the way, which means hay feeding season will soon begin.

Feed expenses are the greatest variable cost influencing producer profitability. On average, these costs account for 40% to 60% of annual cow cost, or the total budget for a cattle operation.

During late fall and early winter, when pasture conditions are less than adequate, many producers provide their cow herd with large, round bales of hay as the forage source. Unfortunately, many hay harvesting seasons often include both unseasonably wet and/or dry conditions in various parts of the country, resulting in poor-quality forage and a reduced harvested forage yield.

Between hay availability and an increase in hay prices, finding ways to reduce hay waste during storage and feeding can have a positive economic impact for many operations. Planning and understanding hay storage methods, feeding options and protein supplementation can help producers get more out of their hay with less waste.

Hay storage

Over the years, various hay storage methods after harvesting have been extensively researched across the U.S. The average percentage of spoilage and dry matter loss after six months of storage is summarized in Table 1.

The average percentage of spoilage and dry matter loss after six months of storage

The cheapest method of hay storage is to place round bales outside on the bare ground – but this method also has the greatest potential for spoilage and dry matter loss due to its direct exposure to weather, particularly moisture and sunlight.

Weathered hay suffers the greatest losses of both yield and forage quality compared to undamaged harvested hay. Potential storage losses can be mitigated by storing bales in elevated or well-drained areas and using gravel, pallets, tires or other materials to break contact with wet soil and provide air space.

Additionally, covering bales can result in a significant decrease in hay loss and spoilage; in fact, this method has been shown to cut the percentage lost by over half – from 27% to 13% – even when covered bales are stored on bare ground.

Although it is not always feasible, storage inside a building is the most ideal option. Leaving 3 to 4 feet of space between the rows of hay bales will help improve air circulation around them. Anything that can be done to reduce the weatherization and spoilage of bales will help ensure the palatability and digestibility of stored forages – and will ultimately save the producer money.

Feeder design

The design of the hay feeder and how the harvested hay is fed can also significantly impact hay waste. The largest amount of hay is wasted when a bale is unrolled and fed on the ground, as nearly half of the bale will be left unconsumed. During periods of very cold or otherwise harsh weather, producers may use this method as a means of bedding cows, but it is not the most efficient way to feed hay.

Limiting a cow’s consumption to a day’s worth of forage at a time can help reduce the amount that gets trampled on instead of consumed. Hay is better utilized when it is fed in a feeder.

There are many different design options for feeders. According to university research, a solid metal sheet around the bottom wall of a circular bale feeder can reduce the amount of wasted hay to nearly 15% of the bale. When a cone feeder is used to hold the bale in its center and off the ground, the amount of hay wasted drops to approximately 7% of the bale.

The disadvantage of using the cone-shaped feeder, compared to an open ring feeder, is that a tractor with a front-end loader is required to place the bale inside the feeder, and some producers may not have access to such a tractor. And while some may find small amounts of hay pulled out and onto the ground advantageous to reduce mud around the feeder, normally, more is wasted than what may be viewed as beneficial.

Researchers at Michigan State University conducted a study measuring round bale hay waste in four types of feeders (see Figure 1).

Measuring round bale hay waste in four types of feeders

The researchers noted that, for this study, the forage was stored inside until fed, which may have resulted in lower percentages of hay loss (refusal or waste) compared to previous studies which had a greater percentage of wasted hay. The results were as follows:

  • Cone feeders (a) resulted in the least amount of hay wasted at 3.5%.
  • Ring feeders (b) followed, with a waste of 6.1%.
  • Trailer feeders (c) resulted in 11.4% waste.
  • Cradle feeders (d) resulted in 14.6% waste, the greatest amount wasted among the four options.

A study conducted at the University of Missouri also considered how stocking rate and forage quality could impact the amount of hay wasted in chain cone feeders and open-bottom ring feeders (see Figure 2).

Hay wasted in chain cone feeders and open-bottom ring feeders

In all of the stocking rates measured, hay waste was greater in open-bottom ring feeders than in chain cone feeders.

When forage quality was high (i.e., 17% crude protein alfalfa haylage), the amount of hay waste did not differ between feeder types. However, when forage quality was low (i.e., 7.5% crude protein fescue hay), 19.2% of the bale was wasted in open-bottom ring feeders, compared to 8.9% wasted in cone-type feeders. These results, as well as those from other studies, indicate the decrease in wasted hay will more than pay for the additional cost of the cone-type hay feeders.

Self-fed protein supplements help to get more out of forages

While cows may visually seem full from consuming the hay provided, are they getting the most out of it nutritionally? More than likely, they could be doing better.

One way to help improve the digestibility of low-quality forages as a way for producers to maximize returns, is to provide them with a self-fed protein supplement available 24/7. The colder winter months and feeding hay coincides with the time of late gestation for spring-calving cow herds, when energy needs are high for both the cow and her developing calf. This holds true for fall-calving herds as well – their energy requirements are high due to increased demand for lactation.

More energy can be released from lower-quality forages, however, when just a small amount of daily supplemental protein is provided in a self-fed supplement. Even if forages have been tested and determined that there is an adequate level of crude protein, cows still require the balanced levels of trace minerals and vitamins found in self-fed supplements. Self-fed supplements will save time and labor while helping cows get the most out of harvested forages.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Jill Larsonk

  • Jill Larson

  • Ruminant Support Nutritionist
  • Ridley Block Operations
  • Email Jill Larson