Minimize hay waste feeding on fields

Winter-feeding beef cattle on hay and pasture fields can minimize labor of hauling manure while still distributing fertilizing nutrients.

Feeding hay to cows on pasture and hay fields during the winter months is gaining popularity as opposed to more traditional confinement feeding. Feeding on fields has several benefits that include reduced machinery and labor of feeding and hauling manure and targeted nutrient distribution. If care is not taken to minimize excessive hay waste, the cost of feeding on fields can outweigh the benefits.

Various feeding methods have been commonly used to feed hay on fields that include feeding in bale feeders, rolling out bales onto the ground and bale grazing. Each method offers distinct advantages regarding savings of labor and machinery use, while exhibiting a range of feeding losses. These feeding methods should not be implemented in the northeast quadrant of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula where bovine tuberculosis infection risk is high or similar areas with a high wildlife disease risk.

Feeding in bale feeders will usually result in the least amount of hay feeding loss. Dan Buskirk, Michigan State University Beef Specialist, has both reviewed literature and conducted research on the effects of feeder design on hay waste. Buskirk’s research demonstrated that dry matter feed loss can range from 3.5 to 14.6 percent using various styles of round bale feeders. Dry matter loss in cone feeders (that included solid hay-saver panels) faired the best with 3.5 percent loss and ring feeders had 6.1 percent. Trailer feeders had 11.4 percent dry matter loss and cradle feeders exhibited and the most loss at 14.6 percent. While feeding in bale feeders, the feeders should be moved every time hay is fed and should be spaced accordingly to crop nutrient needs. Trampling around hay feeders may impact the forage growth during the next growing season and may even leave bare spots. The trampled, bare spots usually recover and will be even more vigorous than areas not trampled by the second growing year. Also, if the field is to be harvested for hay, waste residue could be an issue for the mower. Frequent moving of feeders also reduces accumulation of waste residue, which if not dispersed in the spring, can become a fly larva habitat.

Buskirk’s research feeding strategy was to allow ad-libitum intake with bales delivered to feeders every other day. Feeding quantities of hay at or just over expected dry matter intake will aid in minimizing feeding loss as opposed to supplying generous portions for several days at a time. Especially true if bales are being windrowed, the amount of hay fed and the frequency of feeding will have a large impact on the amount of hay loss. Some producers utilize various types of bale processors to feed hay in a windrow, as opposed to rolling the bale out by pushing with a loader. The width and height of the windrow will impact the quantity of hay that will be trampled and defecated on and consequently feed refusal. Windrows that are narrower and higher will result in more cows standing perpendicular to the row as opposed to standing on it. Properly placed windrows will allow for more even distribution on crop nutrients and seldom shows trampling impact.

Bale grazing is a method of spacing bales in a field before the winter feeding period begins. Bales should be spaced to provide agronomic rates of crop nutrients for the subsequent growing season. Typically, electric fence is used to limit access to the bales. The fence is moved to allow access to more bales. Bale feeders may or may not be used in this system depending on the given producer’s willingness to move the feeders as more access to hay is given. This feeding method has potential to be more wasteful than the other feeding methods. Buskirk’s literature review indicates that hay waste ranges from about five to 15 percent using hay rings. Hay waste can range from 11 to 45 percent when no rings are used. Like other feeding methods, the quantities offered and timing of offering will impact feed loss. Similar to results of feeding in bale rings, trampled areas and clumping of hay residue may need to be managed.

Feeding hay on fields during the winter months has many advantages for farmers. If not managed properly, these feeding methods can result in excessive feed wastage and economic disadvantages. Each farmer can weigh the benefits and drawbacks from feeding methods and manage accordingly. While feeding on fields, producers are encouraged to utilize management techniques to minimize feed loss. For more information regarding the impact of feeding hay on pasture and hay fields, contact Frank Wardynski, MSU Extension Educator at 906-884-4386 or

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