The amount of hay you should feed your cows is directly influenced by the quality of the hay.
“Hay consumption is regulated by the fiber content of the hay,” Andy McCorkill, University of Missouri Extension Livestock Specialist, told Ozarks Farm & Neighbor. A forage analysis will usually reveal two categories of fiber content; Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) is tied to the digestibility of the forage, and Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) is related to the animals’ forage intake. Knowing this information, said McCorkill, is the first step in determining if there is a need for supplementing the herd and if so, how much is required to meet their needs.
If supplementary feed is needed, one option is to feed a better quality hay. “Often times, 5 to 8 pounds of good alfalfa hay is among the best and least expensive supplement options available for the cow herd,” McCorkill said. “It could be as simple as feeding the good hay in one ring and the poorer in another or unrolling side by side, or as complex as developing a Total Mix Ration.” If hay is left over after feeding, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re feeding too much; mold, musty smell, and toxic endophytes in fescue can reduce the amount of hay that livestock will consume.
“As NDF levels rise into the high 60 to low 70 percent range, or above, intake is going to be reduced, and there could be some hay left over,” McCorkill said.
“In general, with the hay quality that we see with hay tests at our lab here in Arkansas, we want to be eating as much hay as they physically can every day,” Dr. Shane Gadberry, University of Arkansas Extension cattle nutrition specialist, added. “We typically want to see cows eating somewhere around 2 percent of their body weight if they’re gestating, or 2.5 percent if they’re lactating.”
When rationing hay, Gadberry said the amount of waste has to be taken into account, and that varies with the feeding method. “Obviously, the most wasteful method that we have measured out of practice or demonstrated in research is just feeding a lot of bales unprotected,” he said. “In those situations we can see cows waste almost 40 percent of the hay that’s offered.”
The most common option adopted by ranchers to reduce feed waste is the use of a round bale ring feeder. Gadberry said those with a metal skirt around the bottom that completely enclose the bale tend to have about 12 percent less waste. An even more efficient feeder, cradles the bale above the ring feeder that way, as the cow is feeding and hay is falling loose from the bale, it remains within the feeder instead of being pulled out where the cow would trample it. Gadberry said research in Missouri has also shown cows will be more wasteful with lesser-quality than with higher-quality hay.
Producers have also tried to reduce waste by improving the palatability of the hay, but Gadberry said the practice of turning bales over and pouring molasses on them is not very efficient; work at the Arkansas Experiment Station indicates the molasses only penetrates 3 to 4 inches into the bales.  Some companies make an injector to inject a molasses-type slurry into the bale. Gadberry said, “Often, the limitation is not being able to get enough in the cow as opposed to getting too much. There are some rare instances with some of our cattle producers where if they’re producing something of very high quality, such as corn silage or harvested forages that are in the mid-to-upper 60s in terms of Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN), we can try to limit feed those cows to control intake and prevent excessive energy consumption, if it helps out on the economics of feeding.”


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