by: Clifford Mitchell

Hay is one of the most common winter feedstuffs in most regions of the country. Mixed emotions come from most cattlemen when talking about this vital resource. Most know getting it baled right means a lot of long hot days in the field and feeding it often comes with bad weather.

The puzzling fact is the hard work put into getting these forages baled at the proper time and cured right often goes to waste because of poor management. Feeding high quality hay in the winter starts with a lot of planning and carries through the winter.

“Getting good quality hay starts with properly fertilizing at the right time, harvesting, storing and feeding it properly. There can be significant losses if every step isn't done right,” says Dr. Rocky Lemus, Extension Forage Specialist, Mississippi State University.

“It costs plenty to bale your own hay or purchase it, producers need to store it properly to avoid significant losses,” says Dr. Daren Redfearn, Oklahoma State University.

Methods of storing can be different for every operation. Finding the best option often comes down to available capital for most operations.

“Obviously, hay stored in a barn will be the best quality hay. Unfortunately, most operations don't have the capability to store hay in the barn,” Redfearn says. “The worst hay is hay that's stored outside on the ground. The best option for most is finding something in between these two that fits management.”

Poor management often costs outfits dollars that could be put to use within the operation or add profit. A few simple changes to storing practices can make a big difference in hay quality.

“The biggest mistake most producers make is storing hay in the shade along a fence row. This is a big mistake because that hay is never allowed to get dry,” Lemus says. “Losses are significant if you leave hay on the ground and can be up to 50 percent. Getting it off the ground with pallets or tires will cut losses. Any step you take to storing it properly will save hay quality. Losses are typically two to five percent if hay is elevated and covered with a tarp. Elevated hay losses can be 10 to 15 percent compared to higher losses if hay is stored on the ground.”

“Hay stored outside is going to get weathered and have a lot of nutrient loss. If producers don't have a barn to store hay inside, just getting that hay off the ground will save a lot of nutrient quality. Covering hay with some kind of tarp is almost as good as a barn,” Redfearn says. “Get those bales out from under the trees. Storing hay is a common sense thing. Most producers may not want to go to the expense of covering hay, but store it in a well drained area in the sun and use pallets or tires to get hay off the ground.”

Expenses are high in the beef business. Production costs have rapidly increased the past five years and feed costs are a big reason. If most knew the value of the hay crop, storage alternatives may seem cheap to ensure quality winter feed.

“There are a lot of things you can do from a storage standpoint that don't cost a lot of money. Most outside hay is going to see 20 percent losses at least and that adds up pretty quickly when you start figuring costs to replace it,” Redfearn says. “If producers know hay quality they will get better at storage practices and can justify dollars spent for storage.”

“Hay is the most expensive feed for most operations and you need to protect that investment. It costs the same amount of money to put up high quality hay as it does bad hay,” Lemus says. “There can be significant losses with hay depending on storage methods. It costs quite a bit of money to buy hay or supplement to replace losses in crude protein, dry matter and TDN. Initial investment costs are minimal. Once you calculate the losses from improperly stored hay, some of these storage methods are really cheap in the long run.”

Studies show improperly stored hay can lose value quickly. According to Lemus, properly stored hay gives a producer the peace of mind that he will have quality hay to feed through the winter months.

“We did a study with hay cut last year. Some was stored in the barn and some was left outside on the ground,” Lemus says. “Hay stored in the barn was 11 percent crude protein. The hay outside was only seven percent crude protein and we lost a lot of dry matter. Producers will have to buy a lot of supplement to make up for those losses.”

In the heat of the summer it is hard to talk about feeding the hay crop, but most know it's just around the corner. Some areas of the country have been bit by drought and other areas have seen unseasonably cool temperatures. Good management cannot get the best of Mother Nature and a lot of areas are seeing decreased hay production. The laws of supply and demand would point to hay prices climbing even higher. Getting the most out of the available hay crop could save producers a lot of money during winter feeding.

“The biggest mistake most producers make is they don't do a forage analysis. Knowing crude protein and TDN in the hay you're feeding can save a lot of money because you may not have to supplement cows or can reduce supplement costs. There are a lot of differences in the hay crop and it pays to know what you have before you feed it,” Redfearn says. “Make sure you get those round bales tight end to end in a well drained area off the ground to reduce losses. We have equipment now that lets us bale tighter bales and it is another barrier against losses, but it won't protect hay from bad management practices.”

“Most producers don't do a nutrient analysis so they don't know how much their hay is worth. If they did a nutrient analysis it would be a lot easier to spend a little money to store it correctly,” Lemus says. “Storage loss and losses from improperly feeding hay are big ticket items. From the time you bale until the time you feed is a forage system and you have to protect that investment.”

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