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Doling Out the Hay

January 26, 2016


So now you have your hay, how do you dole that out?  For us hay is a pretty precious resource.  We’ve got sweat equity and a ton of worry in our hay supply, and if you have to buy hay you have invested a lot of your hard-earned money.  So keeping waste to a minimum is important I think.  I cannot even begin to convey how much it bugs me when I see wasted hay.  A quick tour around the interwebs will give you an eyeful of wasted hay.  And what’s the worst in my mind is the cavalier attitude about wasting hay.  I have heard numbers bandied about at high as a 50% expectation of useful hay.  Wow!  I. Could. Not. Afford. That.  Our cows don’t waste any hay.  I’m not kidding.  Zero waste.  How can be?


A lot of that has to do with quality I believe.  We make quality hay, and I know how hard that is to do.  Besides having good standing hay to begin with you have to deal with the weather, or equipment breakdowns.  With poor quality hay you probably can expect 50% of the hay to be discarded by the animals.  So we work hard to avoid that.  We used to get hay off other “farms” in exchange for the baling of the hay.  Many times our cows would not eat it.  One year, much to our surprise our cows chose hay from here that had been rained on for over a month, over hay from one of those depleted farms I mentioned in the previous post.  We had baled that rained on hay just to get the mess out of the field, and planned to use it for bedding. We didn’t offer it to them we just bedded the feeding shed with the rained on hay and filled the feeder with the “good” hay.  Hours later when we went back to the barn, the cows had eaten a good portion of the bedding hay, and had tossed the other hay out of the feeder.  You should have seen the stink eye we got when we flipped that hay back in the feeder for dinner.  Happy Cows did not live in Oregon that day.  So I have to concede that possibly all that wasted hay I am seeing is due to quality or lack thereof.  I don’t know about your area, but here you can pay the same amount for crappy hay and good hay.  The test of good hay is if your stock will eat it, and clean it up. We still talk about the cows choosing what we considered junk hay over hay that had never seen a drop of rain.


So, lets assume you bought or put up quality hay.  The way you feed the hay out too can make a huge difference in how much hay is wasted.  We feed in a number of ways during the winter.  If the cows are outside and we have not brought them in for the deep bedding period, we deliver the hay to them via pickup and drop the hay off each side of the pickup bed.  When feeding like this you want to drop off small amounts of hay and space it at least a cow length plus, so the cows don’t poop or pee on the hay behind them spoiling it for eating.  We use small square bales so about a half a bale in each spot is about right.  If you feed like this you want to feed in a different spot each day.  You will be avoiding feeding on manured areas and placing a more suitable amount of disturbance where you want it.  If you’re trying to boost your fertility feeding like this in the poor spots of the pasture will help. Livestock do not like to eat hay their feet have touched because they know they have walked in their own manure.  That’s why fence line feeding where you put all the bales together and in the same spot each day will waste a lot of hay, essentially wasting the waste, because there is no way to reclaim that extra manure, urine and soiled hay.  It might be convenient to just shove the bale over the fence and not fire up that big tractor or pickup and drive out in the field but, really you should.

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Still assuming that we all have quality hay, feeder design may have something to do with hay wastage.  These feeder panels pictured above are fixed to a log, you know to hold it firmly in place… . Well, that’s the problem, depending on cow size, if you mount the feeder too high, calves will have a hard time reaching the hay, and if you mount it too low like above, the cows will be uncomfortable because the top bar of the feeder is pressing on their neck the whole time they are eating.  This will cause them to reach in and pull out a mouthful of hay and stand there eating it comfortably.  But if you have ever pulled apart hay bales of any type you know some always falls out of your hand.  So there goes the hay, on the ground and most likely it will get wasted because it gets stepped on.  The reason the stock doesn’t eat soiled hay?  Because they have a natural repugnance to cow manure, just like in the pasture the repugnance zone that never gets grazed is because of the manure.  So no, they are not being fussy, or cute and turning up their nose at perfectly good hay, they are protecting themselves from parasites.  Cows are anal that way, and I suspect so is every other grazer if they have a choice.  If there ever is an appropriate place to anthropomorphise folks, this is it.  Put yourself in their place in regards to eating and feeding.

♥  Is it comfortable to eat there?

♥  Is it clean?  No manure of any type, not trodden on before feeding, by chickens, goats, etc., etc.

♥  Is it dry and not rained on or ruined?

♥  Do they feel safe there eating?  Will the boss cow ram them from behind while they’re eating?

We got a little smarter with this feeder design, mostly because we wanted to do deep bedding and you must have a movable feeder gate to accomplish this.  We looked at a lot of designs including Polyface’s, and came up with this installation for our barn.  The first thing to crap out on these panels were the solid sheet metal bottoms that keep the hay on the correct side of the panel.  The cows bashed them to smithereens in about seven years, and they were on the wrong side of the panel to really work well.  So this summer Hangdog replaced them with plywood.  Easy to replace and not quite so dangerous to the bovine bashers should they (plywood panels, not the cows) come loose.

When we were researching feeders for inside winter feeding, the one design we kept seeing was mangers slanted in towards the cow side of the barn, which always resulted in pulled out hay, which quickly becomes sodden, dirty hay.  I suppose in a dream world where you can waste hay till the cows come home, that would be fine.  Hay Schmay who cares?  Unfortunately I don’t live or haul hay in that dream world, I don’t really like wasting hay as you can tell by now.  So to that end we rigged up the feeder so the cows stuck their heads in on our side, and if they scoot the hay out of the manger, it is on our side of the barn so we can fork it back within their reach.  Not unlike a nice feed alley that you see in larger barns.

So those are the basics, keeping the hay clean, keeping the hay fresh and really looking at the feeder or method you use to feed out the hay and most importantly, watching the cows to see if it is working for them, you may be able to adjust or change-up your feeding area a little bit and stop some of that slippage, and maybe spend a little less on hay.

I can’t really finish this post without saying a thing or three about round bales.  I am for one glad we never progressed that far.  I know it probably sounds like heresy to go against the round bale crowd, but for smallholders?  Really you need some equipment to handle those bales, and forgive my ignorance, I have no idea how much feed that is, and for a cow or two it just doesn’t make sense, unless you don’t mind the waste.  There are so many designs of round bale feeders, I have a feeling finding the one that really works without wasting most of the hay is like finding a needle in a haystack.  I get it though, I know some folks have no choice, that’s what is available and you do have to make do.  I also understand the hay guy’s dilemma too, he doesn’t want to handle all those little bales, and the big bales make perfect sense in that regard.  Get big or get out really left its mark.

I’m on a roll I think…next:  So you think you want to try deep bedding?


16 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2016 4:40 pm

    I wish we could GET small square bales without paying an arm and a leg….I think you can spread them out farther and there isn’t near as much waste…but alas it is too costly and we roll out the rounds for the cows and feed the calves and bulls in bale feeders which could be inproved on a whole lot…….especially for 2500 pound bulls.

    • sherryw2015 permalink
      January 26, 2016 5:40 pm

      I agree, while we only feed a few animals the only hay readily available around here (east central Wi.) is big bales (300 – 400 #) and bigger bales (600-700#). Makes it hard to not over fill the feeders! Farmers doing the 50# bales are few and far between.

      • January 27, 2016 6:37 am

        Most of our rounds and big squares are 1200# and over. We like the big squares as they transport easier but then we have to get a tractor out to feed them.

  2. January 26, 2016 4:45 pm

    I looked forward to reading this one and am thrilled to bits that i am doing the same, for the outside feeding at least. small patches of hay, different locations, going all around the perimeter of the field. It just made sense and I am a newbie! Plus I have no waste. None. Except for one load of hay I bought from a neighbour that was ALL alfalfa sticks. I could just spit. So i am using it as bedding. No round bales either. I brought back a hay feeder design from NZ and that is no waste too. i hate feeding inside mainly because I want the bulk of the manure to be outside. Anyway, I am looking forward to tomorrow and comparing my deep bedding plan to yours. I am feeling really good about what i am doing and I have you to thank! Have a great evening.. c

  3. January 27, 2016 3:43 am

    Affording small bales was one of the reasons we changed how we do cows now. Around here, if you have crappy hay, it’s for cows. The good hay is for horses. This made no sense to me, as I will be eating that cow, and if it has had poor nutrition, what was the point? Not to mention health of the cow, etc. So we always got the very best hay we could find. We are too small to do our own hay, not to mention being able to afford the equipment. but it has always been a dream of mine, should I hit the lottery I can’t afford to play…

    • January 27, 2016 5:48 am

      It’s the same here unless you spring for dairy hay. Horse hay is a good indicator, or actually if the hay guy sells to horse owners and has repeat customers. Less dust, mold and higher quality usually.

  4. quinn permalink
    January 27, 2016 4:51 am

    I have to buy all my hay for a small herd of cashmere goats, and you can bet I’ve spent a lot of time and energy over the years coming up with ways to Not Waste Hay. A dairy farmer told me years ago, “nothing wastes hay like a goat wastes hay” and I guess he should know as he has both cattle and goats. It’s certainly true compared to horses. I think it is partly because goats are browsers rather than grazers, and what I call “top-down eaters” – they instinctively prefer to eat the highest available food, be it tree branches or scrub. Much cleaner and parasite-free food than anything on the ground, for sure! Makes for some challenges in feeder design.

    • January 27, 2016 5:50 am

      Quinn, I know exactly what you mean. Not that I have goats, but it’s also a size thing, even a small square is a lot of feed for a goat, giving them access to a bale is like giving a couple of cows access to a round bale. Once you cut the twine, it starts to get “old.” People often ask me why we don’t have goats…no browse really. I can’t really provide the correct feed for them.

      • quinn permalink
        January 28, 2016 4:46 pm

        When I started with the goats, I had loads of browse so they had an important job to do gradually clearing land. And I had planned to be in a place with more land within about 5 years, just when the herd would be needing more room and more browse. Sensible planning, but life took a turn and now I’ve been here 5 more years and may be here indefinitely. So for now I’ve stopped breeding, and am buying so much hay that this year I put up a roundtop shelter just for the winter supply.
        Life is funny, no?

        • quinn permalink
          January 28, 2016 4:52 pm

          And I actually “manage” my invasive plants as a browse crop now, timing the goats’ access to allow for more than one flush of foliage in the summer. It’s almost like a second or third cutting of hay, except the goats do all the cutting.

  5. Bee permalink
    January 27, 2016 5:34 am

    Oh, how I envy you that barn, Nita! Since housing for people is higher priority on this run-down old ranch, it will be a while before we have something like that. In the meantime, we feed with an old motorcycle trailer hauled by a four-wheeler. Our heavy clay soil can’t handle anything bigger; it tears up the ground and the vehicle gets stuck. Hubby learned that the hard way the first year we lived in California. We came home with a pickup load of hay and he was sure we could just drive out and feed before we unloaded the rest of the hay. Having grown up in the area, I knew better, but it was one of those times when the Y chromosome got it the way, so I finally shut up. Of course, that meant I had to help him with come-alongs, chains and cables for the six hours it took to get the pick-up unstuck and back to dry ground…
    Although we do have some waste by feeding outside, it does help increase the diversity of the pasture forage, as there are always some seeds mixed in from over-mature plants.We rotate sites to spread manure and the carbon from leftover hay. The wild geese and turkeys also supply manure, as they like to nibble, too, and the turkeys will scratch and turn over hay leftovers and manure piles. Hubby’s dad used to calve in the winter (crazy to my way of thinking, but that was their pattern). They had several smallish fields right by the house, and in Idaho there was nearly always a foot or more of snow on the ground. FIL raised Belgian draft horses and they fed with a team. Come spring, the cows went back out on the mountain, and FIL would plow up the feeding area and plant sweet corn. Everybody in the area would come to buy that corn — it was beautiful stuff.
    Great post; I always learn something from your posts!

  6. January 27, 2016 2:05 pm

    Great article MOH! You have inspired me to start blogging about our lessons on the farm.

    We were going to go with the small bales when we thought we would produce hay. We would have fed out the cattle by hand. It was a perfect plan!

    With our very wet weather in McMinnville, we went with haylage instead of hay. We ended up using 4 foot round bales for haylage. No way could we move these 1200 pound bales by hand. Even using a tractor feeding the bales, we have spent several years perfecting how to move them and feed them without waste. Each bale that makes it through successful cutting, baling, wrapping, and storage represents much worry, sweat, and tears. We don’t want to waste any of it. I’m happy to say that our cattle eat every last shred of haylage now.

    You need at least 6 head of cattle to make 4 foot round haylage bales work; you will feed a new bale every 2-3 days which is the longest I would feed out a haylage bale before it spoils or becomes unpalatable.

    Am excited to read your deep bedding post! Ping me if you head out my way…would be fun to show you around the farm.

  7. January 28, 2016 5:14 am

    I have a set of the green feed throughs in the barn for the cows. And a hay rack for the sheep. That is in SERIOUS need of a redesign. We built it based on specs we found online, for a “standard” size sheep…that hay falls right thru to the floor half of the time. However, since I have been using it to mulch it is okay-ish for this winter. Next winter I don’t want to see so much waste.

  8. January 28, 2016 5:25 pm

    Oh, you don’t know how much this resonates with me Nita. We grow our own hay but are at the mercy of local contractors to cut and bail it so most of the last lot was cut too late and the two dairy girls just pick the best bits out (which drives DH mad). We also can’t get small bales made here so we’ve gone with large squares but we do have a tractor to move them into the beefer paddocks, where they’re fed out on thin spots of pasture but often not spread as far as I’d prefer. Because his beefers will pretty much eat anything, DH rants at the two Jersey girls leaving about 50% of their hay behind (takes it as a personal insult), and so they don’t really get enough and Annie is losing condition (should improve when we wean her calf and knock her down to OAD). We’ve had a little summer rain so I’m hoping we get some pasture growth soon cuz I’m totally OVER the hay rants at this end 🙂

    • January 28, 2016 8:15 pm

      CassieOz, I feel your pain, having been on both sides of the coin. When you’re the contractor you never can be on time, many years we left our hay standing too long just to keep the phone from ringing off the hook with complaints. Would. Not. Want. To. Do. Anyone’s. Hay. Ever. Again. But it’s expensive to get setup so you can do it yourself, and depreciation on equipment is a bummer 😦

      It’s hard to keep the condition on those dairy girls 😦 If Jane leaves any hay, I pack it out to the beef cows, they scarf it up and she’s happy, but it’s a constant chore to keep her in condition. So glad you got some much needed rain! That must be a relief 🙂

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