Savannah Valley District

Around the Countryside Tips for Buying Hay

Marion Barnes, Senior County Extension Agent Clemson University

When it comes to producing hay, livestock producers experience seasons of shortage and abundance. As winter nears, beef cattle producers should take stock of their hay inventories to ensure an adequate supply to get them through until next spring. Not every cattle producer has the luxury to grow as much hay as they need, and many small operations choose to purchase all their hay needs. The following are a few tips for buying hay for your beef cattle herd:

  • Determine how much hay you will need. How much hay a cow will or should eat is not always clear. Generally, a brood cow will consume two to two and a half percent of her body weight daily. That means a typical 1200-pound cow will need about 25 to 30 pounds of dry hay daily. That amount can vary depending on available warm and cool season grazing, temperatures in the winter, and storage and feeding conditions. If hay is stored outside or bales fed without the protection of a hay ring, the amount of hay required can increase by as much as ten to thirty percent due to increased consumption, storage, and feeding losses. Experts generally tell us to allow one – 1000 pound bale per cow monthly.
  • Match your hay to your animals’ need for quality. A cow’s nutritional needs change throughout the year. As a dry cow enters the last trimester of her pregnancy and when she begins nursing her newborn calf, her nutrient needs will change. The hay provided to these cows will need to change also. The average milking beef cow requires fifty percent more total digestive nutrients (TDN) or energy than she does when she is dry (not providing milk). So, if you are purchasing hay, it may be best to look for at least two different lots of hay that are of different quality since those nursing cows will require higher-quality hay.
  • Select hay of the right quality. Hay quality is very important since you are fundamentally buying digestible energy and protein. However, too many hay buyers don’t seem to appreciate the need for hay quality since many never ask for a forage analysis before purchasing hay. Much money can be saved or lost on this decision. Buying and feeding poor-quality hay can result in the need for additional supplementation to meet the minimum nutritional requirements of your animals. Additional supplementation (feed) increases the cost of production and can cut into profits. Insist on a forage analysis before purchasing hay or, at the very least, test all lots of hay before feeding.
  • Don’t buy problems. If you have not produced the hay, it’s very likely you will not know what might be hiding in those bales. At times, hay producers experience prolonged periods of drought during the growing season, which can lead to elevated nitrate levels in hay. Nitrogen toxicity is more common in millets and sorghum-sudan grass but can also occur in bermudagrass. This is another reason to insist on a forage analysis. Purchased hay can also be a source of noxious weeds. Some weeds may not be completely controlled even with the best herbicide program. Some herbicides have a long residual life that negatively impacts the germination and growth of legume species in areas where hay has been fed. Refer to the herbicide product label for more hay movement and manure restrictions information. Besides noxious weeds, anti-quality factors like toxic molds and mildew are sometimes an issue, especially for young animals and horses. It’s important to talk with your hay supplier concerning his management practices.
  • Know which cutting you are purchasing. Knowing which cutting you are buying can offer clues to what’s in the hay. For example, elevated nitrate levels are more likely in the second and third cuttings of bermudagrass, which usually occur during the height of the summer when drought conditions are more prevalent. Typically, first cuttings are prone to have the most weeds, and the last cutting of the season often has lower quality.
  • Know how the hay was stored. Hay stored outside without protection may have a weathered layer that cows will refuse to eat. This weathered layer can waste over twenty-five percent of the bale. Buy hay that has been stored inside or under cover.
  • Know the moisture of the bales. All hay contains some amount of moisture. Research tells us that hay should be baled at fifteen percent moisture or less for round bales to reduce the chances of problems like mold, mildew, and storage issues. While this is generally a “good rule of thumb,” other factors come into play. Hay, with a moisture content of fifteen percent, has fifteen pounds of water and eighty-five percent of dry matter. All things considered, it would be wise to purchase or bale your hay with lower moisture levels.
  • Know the weight of the bales. Even if you only buy a few bales at a time from a local retailer, it’s important to know how much your bale weighs. Estimating bale weight for large round bales can be difficult as weight varies based on bale density. Just because the operator’s manual indicates the baler makes a certain weight bale does not necessarily mean it actually is. Hay bales, particularly round bale weights, can vary several hundred pounds depending on forage type, moisture content, bale dimensions, and bale density. Weighing bales can also help you calculate annual hay needs.

With colder temperatures approaching, now is the time to ensure you have an adequate supply of hay to get your herd through the winter. Remember, not all hay is created equal. Contact your local Clemson Extension office for more information on these and other forage management tips. Information for this article was taken in part from Tips for Buying Hay by Dr. Dennis Hancock, Extension Forage Specialist, University of Georgia.    

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