Skip to Content

The Weekly News Source for Wyoming's Ranchers, Farmers and AgriBusiness Community

Extension educator offers tips for lowering the winter feed bill

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The largest expense for many cattle operations comes in the form of the winter feed bill, which can compromise up to half of the annual cost to keep a beef cow through the winter. 

The climate in Wyoming and across much of the West requires many producers to feed their herds throughout the majority of winter months. This makes maximizing feed value and minimizing waste absolutely essential for their bottom line.

In an Angus Beef Bulletin article published on Dec. 6, University of Missouri Extension Livestock Specialist Gene Schmitz offers several tips to help producers winter their livestock on fewer dollars. 

Hay testing
and bale weight

First, Schmitz notes the simplest and most cost-effective practice a producer can partake in to lower their winter feed bill is to sort their cattle into groups based on body condition score (BCS), sort their hay supply into groups based on quality and then feed hay to match the nutritional needs of each group of cattle. 

He points out producers can also appropriately supplement each group based on their nutritional needs and the quality of the hay they are fed. 

In order to accomplish this, it is important producers test their hay for nutrient content. 

Additionally, Schmitz says it is important producers know what their hay bales weigh.

“Let’s assume 1,200-pound bales can be purchased for $75 per bale or $125 per ton,” he says. “If transportation and feeding losses are 25 percent, this means only 900 pounds from each bale of hay actually gets into the livestock. This increases hay cost to $0.08 per pound or $167 per ton.”

“If losses are cut to 10 percent, then 1,080 pounds of hay is consumed,” he continues. “This reduces hay cost to just under $0.07 per pound or $140 per ton.”

Limit feeding 

Limit feeding is another option for producers looking to bring down the cost of their winter feed bill. However, he warns producers not to try limit feeding without a hay test.

“With adequate-quality forage, limiting cow access to hay feeders can reduce waste while achieving acceptable performance. Twelve-hour access seems to be a good compromise between performance and waste reduction,” Schmitz says. 

Schmitz also says cattle can be limit fed a high-grain ration, which can meet their nutritional energy needs while using less feed. 

“Compare the cost of grain versus the cost of hay on a per-unit-of-energy basis – total digestible nutrients (TDN) – when considering this option,” he says. “Some producers graze standing milo as an effective, lower-cost way to feed cows through the winter.”

Choosing who to feed

While producers are taking time to analyze BCS, sort cows into groups based on condition, test their hay and consider limit feeding options, Schmitz says it is also important to look at the unfriendly option of deciding which cows they actually want to retain and care for through the winter. 

“It may be more beneficial for the operation in the long run to cull animals rather than to try to purchase enough feed for the winter,” Schmitz advises. “However, this is not a one-size-fits-all option, so producers need to figure their operational costs and evaluate tax and other financial implications before making any final decisions.”

Reducing waste

Reducing waste is a huge factor when it comes to stretching winter hay supply. In fact, Schmitz notes poor feeding practices can result in wasting more than 25 percent of fed hay. 

Schmitz says cone-type or tapered-bottom hay feeders, especially ones with a skirt, have proven to reduce hay waste. He also highly encourages producers not to feed more than a day’s worth of hay in order to decrease waste and stretch supply. 

Properly storing hay bales is another way producers can reduce waste, according to Schmitz. 

“It’s a bit late for this now, but another substantial source of hay waste is how the hay is stored. If covered hay storage is not a possibility, at least take measures to break soil-hay contact. Building rock pads or storing bales on pallets, tires or some other surface reduces waste on the bottom of the bale,” he says.


Schmitz believes producers who have the opportunity to graze pasture or crop residues during winter months may benefit by dividing fields into smaller areas with temporary fencing materials. 

“These are easy to move and can greatly extend the number of grazing days in a given area,” he explains. “Fencing to provide one to two weeks of grazing is acceptable.”

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

Back to top