When you go to any feed store and buy a sack of feed, you know exactly what you’re getting. We know the weight, the ingredients and the quality of the feed. You can buy 12 percent or 20 percent protein cubes to feed cattle.
Having that information is crucial. When buying hay, it becomes a much more difficult effort. There is indeed an art and science to purchasing good quality hay. And far too many times, we get it all wrong. Our local livestock producers spend a huge amount of time and money feeding livestock in the winter months when the summer pastures are dormant.
You either spend a lot of time in a tractor with money invested in the tractor and other hay baling equipment, or you purchase hay from others that have done all that work to produce hay so that you can feed livestock in the winter. The harvest and storage of such a perishable commodity as hay is so ingrained in livestock producers that we sometimes overlook the complexities and inherent difficulties of determining how much is there and its true quality. The latest United States Department of Agriculture statistics indicate that hay harvested in the U.S. is the third largest crop grown in the U.S. Only corn and soybeans exceeded the value of hay. If you are purchasing or growing hay for your cattle operation you will need enough hay for the number of animal units (1,000 pound cow with nursing calf).
The technical formula is to multiply the animal units by 25 pounds of hay per day, then the number of feeding days and then adjusted for some level of feeding waste. For example, if you have 25 head of cattle and plan on feeding hay from Dec. 1 to April 1 (120 days) and factoring in 20 percent waste, you will need to bale and have on hand, 50 tons of hay. So, how many round bales is that? Is that 100 bales? Seventy-five bales? It depends on the size of your bales as well as how much those bales weigh. By simply counting bales, we probably won’t know how much hay you are really getting. True, you’ll know the size. But how much does the average bale weigh?
You can buy a loosely bound 4-by-4 round bale that weighed 475 pounds or you can purchase a tightly baled 5-by-6 that weighed nearly 1600 pounds. Both weights were independently verified on two separate certified scales. Hay can be weighed by comparing your loaded truck and trailer to the same truck and trailer unloaded at a local truck scale. Let’s consider some hay I have seen advertised. First is “Hay $7 /bale.” What kind is it? Is it good quality? I’m going to guess from the lack of information that it’s nothing fancy. Another one is “Fertilized Bahia/Bermuda-mix Hay $55/4x5 net-wrapped roll, barn kept.” Now we’ve got more information to make the decision to buy or not. We might assume it is from this year. It is advertised as fertilized but with all the rain that delayed hay harvests this year, what is the maturity and quality? Did you catch the dimensions? It’s a smaller sized round bale. Barn kept is a plus with as much rain as we have been getting. Yet its weight and quality are still unknown.
We can overcome poor hay with protein supplements. Quite frankly, we regularly do, and thus supplemental protein is often another expensive cost. Remember, it is a great product to supplement hay, not replace it. With early summer rains making the first, even second hay cuttings hard to get, producers that I have been visiting with are facing difficult choices regarding hay supplies.
So before you purchase, try to get the important information to know the quality of the hay and it’s never a bad idea to get a forage sample to know the exact nutrient levels.