Cooler weather can signal the beginning of one of the most work intensive seasons of the cattle cycle for cattlemen reliant on cut hay for fall and winter feeding.

While there are many schools of thought on whether or not to hay, it’s undeniable that the forage is nice to have in inclement weather and should be used with as much efficiency as possible.

During Oklahoma State University Extension’s weekly rancher’s lunchtime webinar, Southeast Oklahoma beef extension specialist Brian Freking broke down some of the most common ways to waste good hay — and how to avoid them.


Hay harvesting equipment and timeliness can help maximize the amount of hay baled, bagged or wrapped from the very beginning of the process.

“One area where we can kind of manage a little bit is the raking aspect, which can have an impact of anywhere from 5 to 20%,” Freking said. “Whether you’re using a wheel rake, rotary rake or bar rake, it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.”

Freking said evaluating goals is important when choosing hay equipment. If the goal is to save money, it might require a different type of rake versus if saving time is key. And, there are trade-offs for each priority.

“We want to make hay when the sun is shining and we usually get our best quality when it doesn’t get rained on,” Freking said. “But what happens if we get a typical one-inch rain or even more?”

Research Freking presented showed that in the instance of rained-on hay, total digestible nutrients and crude protein values decrease, while non-digestible fibers increase. In short, rain damage makes the forage harder to digest and less nutrient rich for cattle from the very beginning.


“When we think about making hay and storing it, our gold standard is to keep it in the barn,” Freking said. “We typically only see anywhere from 2 to 5% losses on barn-stored hay in Oklahoma.”

The biggest losses from barn-stored hay happen in barns with dirt floors where moisture is wicked up through the soil and can damage the bottoms of the bales over time. Even though the loss from this factor seems small, the need for top notch storage increases for high quality and therefore high value hay.

“When we think of the highest quality hay, that also increases our need for storage,” Freking said. “Hay testing, which has been covered in a lot of these sessions, is a very important part.”

If hay is stored outside and uncovered, some simple changes can help minimize damage from the elements. Removing hay from underneath trees, elevating the bales on gravel to help with moisture runoff and managing bale spacing can all have an impact.

“If the lower, bottom round portion of the bales is touching each other, the rain can collect there,” Freking said. “They don’t have a chance to dry out.”

Bales stored directly on the ground, whether inside or out can be greatly helped with a change of elevation.

“If we put hay bales directly on the ground, the loss can be anywhere between 5 to 20% in the first nine months,” Freking said. “If we simply elevate those bales on pallets, that number can reduce significantly.”

Spoilage on hay stored outside is contained mostly in the outer layers of the bale. If just the first six inches are weather-damaged on a bale with a five-foot diameter, the spoilage is about 35% of the total bale. At $100 a ton, the costs of spoilage can be significant.


Feeding hay can be the most time-consuming and complicated part of hay utilization. In Oklahoma State data presented by Freking and collected by Paul Beck, four different types of hay feeders were studied to measure which feeder allowed cattle to get the best benefit from the forage.

The graphic shows the results of all of the feeders compared head-to-head. Of course, in a regular environment hay quality would have an impact on cattle’s choosiness at the feeder and there are limitations to handling different weights and sizes of the feeders.

Additionally, the price of each feeder varies widely and all of those factors must be considered when making an individual decision.

Freking said the success of the basket-type model is largely due to the elevation of the bale.

“The aspect of getting those hay bales off the ground is an important aspect, but it seems like maybe the shape and size of some of these hay bale feeders is also important,” Freking said. “I may not have the equipment to move some of these heavier feeders, but I can move something plastic or galvanized on my own.”

The most efficient bale usage was shown to be rolling out small portions of hay at a time with over 80% utilization compared to 55% utilization if the bale was simply left on the ground with no ring or rolling at all.

“If we put a week’s worth of hay out by just rolling it out we’re going to have a lot of waste, but if we just put the amounts that the cows are going to feed in a day’s time, we have very little loss there,” Freking said. “And so 85% utilization should be a good goal to have in mind.”

Hay Feeders

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