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Extension by Dallas Mount

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Feeding Low Quality Hay

    Off the charts hay prices this year have resulted in many producers purchasing CRP hay from the Dakotas or even north of the border. Others have found hay elsewhere, but much of it is lower quality hay than your traditional home-raised hay or the hay you may normally purchase.
    In this article I will address considerations you should take if you are planning to feed hay this winter that may be of a different type of quality than you are used to.
Get it tested
    When you buy feed, you are ultimately buying pounds or tons of protein, energy and other micronutrients. You wouldn’t agree to purchase cattle for a given price until you knew what they weighed, and hay or other feed should be treated the same.
    If it is a common feed such as alfalfa or grass hay, a cheap and quick NIR test will work. These usually run about $15 and turn around can be as short as a couple of days. If the feed is less common, you should spring for the wet chemistry test, as it will be more accurate.
    It is critically important that proper sampling procedures be followed. Use a hay-coring tool to take the sample and make sure you sample representative bales from the lot. Many extension offices loan these tools out for free.
    If you are feeding hay from an annual crop, such as oats, triticale, millet or sorghum, to name a few, get it tested for nitrates as well. This usually adds about $10 to the testing cost, but may save you from tipping over some high value livestock.
    When you get the hay test results pay close attention to the protein, total digestible nutrients (TDN), which is representative of the energy, and moisture content of the hay. Protein and energy are generally the first limiting nutrients in the diet, and moisture content gives you an idea of how much water you’re buying in a ton of hay.
    The next step is then to develop a ration that will meet your animal performance goals.
Develop a ration
    Once you have your feed test in hand, it is time to evaluate how many pounds per head per day of the various feeds you have will meet your animal performance goals.
    There are some excellent tools to help you do this yourself or you can contact a UW Extension Educator to help you through it. For cow diets I like to use Cow-Culator, which is an excel spreadsheet developed by Oklahoma Extension that gets pretty close on cow diets. You can download it free at
    Keep it simple. You are generally most concerned with balancing for protein and energy. If those two are met you’re 95 percent of the way there.
Considerations for low quality hay
    If the hay you will be using is of lower quality than you normally use, there are some things you need to be aware of.
    First of all, pay close attention to protein levels. If your cows become protein deficient, they are less able to digest the feed you’re giving them, so they will eat less and not get all the nutrients out of the feed. This can lead to rapid loss of body condition, calf abortions, weak calves and ultimately poorly breeding cows.
    If you need to feed protein, carefully price protein supplements based upon cost per pound of protein ingested by the cow.
Cost of protein sources
    There are huge differences in cost of the different forms of protein. Take the time to push the pencil on this one. I’ve seen it be as much as $100 a cow different over a season.
    Also pay close attention to when in the cow’s production cycle you will be feeding different hays. If you have some higher quality hay save it for close to calving or after calving as a cow’s nutrient requirements dramatically increase post calving. You might be able to get a dry cow by on low quality hay, but if you try to feed that same hay to a lactating cow with no supplement you are headed for a wreck.
    As always, UW Extension is here to help. Don’t hesitate to contact us if we can help you test your feed, evaluate which feed is the best buy, develop or evaluate your feed ration or anything else. I hope next year brings back the moisture.
    Dallas Mount is the UW Southeast Area Extension Educator. He can be reached at

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