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Making the Most of Hay This Winter

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

By Chance Marshall

            Wyoming livestock producers are definitely feeling the effects from 2020’s lack of precipitation.

Many producers are concerned about their forage resources for grazing and hay. Those feeding hay must decide whether to invest in additional hay resources at higher prices, manage their herds differently and/or downsize their herds.

Regardless, Mother Nature is forcing Wyoming cattle producers to consider how to utilize our hay resources. 

Covering cows’ nutrient requirements

We have to make sure our cows are receiving the nutrients required to carry out all functions. Crude protein (CP) and energy are generally the most limiting portions of their diet during winter months. 

A cow’s requirements can fluctuate greatly based on stage of production throughout the year (dry, third trimester, lactation, etc.). Cows calving in March or April are entering their third trimester of gestation soon. Cow nutrient requirements will increase greatly and remain high due to the rapid growth of the unborn calf during this critical period. 

Ample fetal-programming research has shown the future performance of the calf is also largely dependent on the nutrients its mother receives during the next three months. It’s extremely important our feeding program going forward contains adequate nutrients for both the cow and the calf. 

But, how can we ensure we are meeting those requirements and also using our limited hay resources wisely?

Testing hay

Being confident about meeting cow/heifer requirements is hard without knowing what nutrients are in our forage base. Without testing hay, it is hard to know which lick tub or supplement option is best for our herd. 

We can determine if the expensive high protein tub is worth the extra money by looking at what is missing in our hay analysis. Or, if the hay contains enough energy and CP, perhaps the more affordable option would be sufficient. 

In general, grass hay will be low- to mid-quality forage. This means grass hays are generally lower in CP compared to legume hays, like alfalfa. 

With grass hay, it is important to ensure cattle are getting adequate protein in their overall diet to allow for proper rumen function and digestion. Cattle fed hay testing under 10 percent CP will likely need supplemented greater amounts of protein to meet cow requirements during the late gestation and lactation stages.

Alfalfa mixes are higher in CP and may be enough to satisfy protein requirements for proper digestibility. However, even some alfalfa mixes can fail to provide the needed energy during a cow’s demanding stages of production, especially if the hay is weathered or has been rained on. 

Alfalfa will likely be more expensive and also increases chances of digestion issues, such as bloat.

Choosing the right supplement option

Choosing from the vast number of supplement options is a common dilemma cattle producers face in winter. Supplements come in many forms including lick tubs, pellets, cubes, liquid, etc. and vary greatly in nutrient levels and pricing. Determining which works best for an operation is the hard part.

Supplement pricing varies based on delivery methods. For example, supplementation can occur daily or multiple times per week with pellets, which is labor intensive. Supplementation can also be offered as free-choice in the form of lick tubs, which is not labor intensive. 

Lick tubs are convenient, but they often come with a higher price tag. Deciding which formulation to feed should be based on labor availability to physically feed daily or multiple times per week.

With the results from a hay test handy, producers should determine which supplement options are adequate to cover herd nutrient requirements. 

Regardless of which supplement formulation works best for the operation, product buying decisions should be based on comparing the cost per pound of nutrient the animals will receive, instead of the differences listed on the price tags. 

Providing cattle with supplements and mineral can lead to better hay digestibility and cow performance. Supplementation can increase the efficiency of rumen microbes by 25 to 30 percent and result in better use of our hay resources. 

Reducing wastage

A bunch of hay is wasted every year. Expect between six to 20 percent wastage depending on the methods used to prevent it. 

This means if a cow requires 26 pounds per day on an as-fed basis, she might need 30 pounds per day offered to her. Determining ways to minimize losses can be an important part of efficiently using hay. 

Here are a few suggestions for preventing wastage.

Feed hay stored outside first. Hay stored outside will likely degrade in quality quicker over time and become less palatable, leading to more refusal and wastage.

Feeding hay in small amounts or in a feeder will limit opportunity for wastage. Also, feeding hay in well-drained areas can beneficial. 

Consider a location that has good footing and drainage as a designated feeding spot. Moving feed locations can be also be an effective and affordable way to minimize losses.

Targeting hay resources

If a producer has some variation in hay quality, they should consider targeting certain hay resources based on quality. Save best-quality hay for the toughest times, which may be late gestation, lactation or during cold weather snaps. 

Lastly, providing shelter or a place to protect animals from winter elements can be crucial. When cows are cold, they require more feed inputs and nutrients just to stay warm. Voluntary feed intake increases as the “real feel” temperature decreases. A rule of thumb is for every degree drop in temperature below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, feed requirements increase by one percent. 

Chance Marshall is the Northwest Area Agriculture and Horticulture and Livestock Systems Extension Educator. He can be reached at

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