Make the best of your hay resources by limiting access to feed

Published 3rd June 2020
Pasture and Soil Feeding All Studies

A common way to feed cows or heifers is to allow 24/7 access to bales of hay, often arranged in hay feeder rings, or sometimes just dropped off in the middle of the paddock. At first, this sounds like a perfect, low-management method, but think again. Ultimately, with 24/7 access to feed, the cows are in charge of how much hay is used while the owner loses control of how much hay the cows get.

Cows eating hay - Hustler Equipment©

Ron Lemenager, Professor of Animal Science at Purdue University in Indiana in the US, conducted research over a three-year period to study how much hay was consumed when cows were given only a limited amount of time to eat.

Forage intake was reduced by as much as 75%, 60%, and 33%, respectively, when cattle were restricted to one, two, or three hours access to hay compared to cows having free access to hay – with no difference in cow weight change. Unlimited access to hay is almost never the most cost-effective feeding method.

In a situation where very high-quality hay is being fed, it is possible that access of four hours per head per day could provide all the energy and protein for a third-trimester cow. It is also possible that this same cow could be fed more average-quality hay where eight hours per cow per day would be needed.

Let’s do the math. If a 1,400-pound cow (635-kilo cow) needs to consume 2.5% of her body weight in hay each day (35 pounds or 15 kilos) and 24/7 access to hay results in a 28% hay wastage (10 pounds or 4,5 kilos), that 10 pounds of hay can be saved every day. In a herd of 100 cows fed for 150 days, where you limit access to six hours per day, your total hay savings per year is 75 tons. At $100 per ton, that is a savings of $7,500 per year!

Though minimizing wasted forage and being cost-effective is a key concern, it is far from the only worry. For most livestock farms/ranches, the main reason for allowing unlimited access to hay is the time and convenience factor. So next time, we’ll be comparing different methods to feed out hay and you’ll find that the fastest method isn’t always the one you’d think.

Angus Hewetson, Hustler Global Business Development Manager