Studies reveal the hidden economics of processed hay

Published 16th March 2023
Feeding All Studies

Cattle farmers and ranchers face significant challenges in managing their feed costs, particularly during the winter months when feed expenses can account for up to 60-65% of total expenses. The method of delivering feedstuffs is a significant factor in minimizing waste and maintaining profitability, and several studies have shown that traditional flail-type bale processors may not be the most efficient method of feeding cows in spite of a commonly held idea.

A thesis published by the University of Alberta1 back in 2009 compared the winter feed waste of cows fed forage on snow using a 3-point bale unroller versus a flail-type bale processor (these use knives or flails to crush and chop the hay). The results showed that waste was significantly higher with the flail-type bale processor compared to the 3-point unroller (12.9% wastage with the 3-point unroller against 19.2% with the flail-type bale processor).

Also, 21.5% of the total protein was found in the wasted feed delivered by the flail-type bale processor. To replace the lost protein, an additional 2.55 kg/5.61 lb of DM or 3.04 kg/6.69 lb of hay as fed per head per day is required, which increases feed costs by $0.60/h/d based on a hay cost of $0.09/lb. Note hay prices have been updated to reflect the current 2023 estimate2.

In total, the use of a flail-type bale processor increased winter feeding costs by $4.05 per head for a 175-day feeding period compared to a 3-point bale unroller when including wastage, nutrient replacement and additional equipment costs (including feed delivery costs, time of travel to and from the feeding area, processing time and total equipment time to feed the animals). For instance, the study found that the total cost to operate the tractor and bale shredder machinery cost for 175 day was $15,973.24 or $91.27 per day or $0.91/h/d. The investment cost for flail-type bale processors is also more expensive than investing in a 3-point unroller or a Hustler Chainless bale feeder.

Although flail-type bale processors have been marketed for decades as a more efficient method of feeding cows than long forage, studies show that this may not be the case. Flail-type bale processors were originally designed to shred straw and provide a uniform bedding layer for feedlot or cow-calf animals in the early 1990s. Since no alternative feeding-out solution was available at the time, farmers and ranchers progressively diverted the flail-type processors from their original function by using them for feeding-out tasks (instead of bedding). As a result, flail-type bale processor manufacturers followed suit, advertising their products as an efficient method of feeding cows.

While chopped forage may be beneficial in some cases, such as feedlot operations or bunk feeding where fast gain weight is essential, the economic rationale behind cow-calf operations differs, with a focus on making the maintenance requirements as efficient as possible. According to Dr. Lalman of Oklahoma State University3, cows fed with short-chopped hay consumed 2.5% of their body weight in dry matter, while those fed with long-stem hay consumed 1.8% and retained the same body condition. For a 50-head herd of 1,200 lb cows, switching to long-stem hay would result in a 28% savings in hay, equivalent to 8.4 lb per cow per day, or 420 lb per day for the entire herd, saving around 31.5 tons of hay or 50 bales over 150 days.

Similar results can be found in the thesis published by the University of Alberta. A significant difference in the amount of fines was lost between the more nutritional leaves and the less nutritional stems or coarse material. The implication is that the fines from the leaves are more valuable and worth preserving than those from the stems or coarse material. This is due to the fact that typically the highest levels of nutrition of most plants are found in the most fragile parts such as the heads and leaves.

The table below is reproduced from the study and shows the forage fraction breakdown of MBAH (meadow brome alfalfa hay) when fed by treatment at delivery and as wasted feed.

Treatment At Delivery   In Wasted Feed  
  Fines (% DM) Coarse (%DM) Fines (% DM) Coarse (%DM)
Shredded onto snow (flail-type bale processor) 18.92 81.08 45.77 54.23
Unrolled onto snow (3-point bale unroller) 6.38 93.62 40.83 59.17

The presence of alfalfa stems and leaf material from the grasses in the processed fine material diluted or reduced the overall protein content of the fraction sample4 as there are differences in protein content between stem and leaf material for at least timothy, bromegrass and orchardgrass5.

The table below is reproduced from the study and shows the adjustment to the nutrient quality of MBAH when processed onto snow.

Nutrient Delivered fraction value Consumed value
Crude Protein (% DM) 11 8.6
Calcium (% DM) 0.42 0.31
Phosphorus (% DM) 0.23 0.19
Magnesium (%DM) 0.15 0.118
Sodium (% DM) 0.021 0.017
Potassium (% DM) 1.82 1.47
ADF (% DM) 34.98 23.3
NDF (% DM) 68.91 56.1

The table below is reproduced from the study and shows the nutrients present in 9.28 kg/20.45 lb DM delivered and 1.5 kg/3.30 lb wasted of MBAH processed onto snow.

Nutrient Delivered Consumed Waste % Loss
Crude Protein (g DM) 1017 798 219 21.5
Calcium (g DM) 39 29 10 25.6
Phosphorus (g DM) 22 18 4 18.2
Magnesium (g DM) 14 11 3 21.4
Sodium (g DM) 2 1.65 0.35 17.5
Potassium (g DM) 168 137 31 18.4
ADF (g DM) 3246 2633 613 18.9
NDF (g DM) 6394 5210 1184 18.5

With this challenge in mind, the Hustler Chainless bale feeders, such as the mounted Chainless LX105™ bale feeder or the trailed Chainless TX205™ bale feeder have been developed to maximize every pound of DM thanks to their unique, gentle teasing action, pulling the hay apart in long stems while retaining the nutritious heads and leaves, making the feed more palatable for stock and allowing the producer to feed out the exact amount in a long, thin windrow, drastically reducing nutritional loss and hay waste.

Unfortunately, too many producers do not recognize feed waste as an expense that can be managed by changing feeding systems, feed restraining devices or type of forage provided. However, mindsets are slowly evolving, and “the practice of feeding on snow has become a common practice in western Canada and parts of Northwest United States over the last decade.6” 

Wasted forage is not only a direct cost to the typical cow-calf operation but also has indirect costs associated with it with a broader impact on the primary industries. These include the additional time, effort, and costs required to produce the hay that is wasted, as well as opportunity costs associated with the loss of revenue from not being able to use the land for other purposes. The financial impact of wasted feed on cow-calf operations is more significant than we imagine. Just in Western Canada, the study speculates that a potential savings of $40 to $60 million per annum if feed waste could be eliminated.


Here at Hustler, farming sustainably is at the heart of everything we do.

Our belief in sustainable farming practices underpins our range of world-leading livestock feeding solutions. If you are looking for farming equipment near you or buying livestock feeding equipment, contact our friendly team today! 



To find out more about improving your feeding methods, you may also like to take a look at some of these great resources: 

1Determining the nutritional and economic impact of feed waste when wintering beef cows in central Alberta” by Barry Yaremcio, University of Alberta
22023 cropping season coming into view” by Progressive Forage editor Dave Natzke
3Increased Feed Efficiency and Nutritional Uptake of your Forages” by Dr. Lalman of Oklahoma State University.
4Sheaffer et. al., (2000)
5 Mowat et. al., (1965)
6 McCartney, 2005