How much hay should producers feed their livestock?

The amount of hay a livestock operation needs to meet the nutritional demands of its animals relies on many factors. The hay quality, hay storage methods, production stage of the animal and type of supplements fed should all be considered when determining how much hay to provide. 

 Determining Hay Quality

  Before producers can determine how much hay to feed, they need to determine the quality of their hay. The higher the quality, the less hay producers will need to provide. 

The most reliable way to determine the nutritional value of the hay is through a forage test. “Hay testing is really the key to putting together a winter-feeding program,” Gene Schmitz, University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist, said. 

The quality of the forage is based on two factors: protein level and percentage of Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN). According to Schmitz, most cool-season grass hays average around 8 percent protein, but this can vary. In terms of energy, the number to shoot for is a TDN percentage of 57 percent or higher.

The levels of protein and TDN in forage are impacted by the timing of when the hay was harvested. The stage of maturity at cutting, baling and storing correlates to the nutritional content of the hay. “The closer to the boot stage (point when the seed head is just emerging) the grasses are harvested, the higher the quality,” Schmitz said. 

If producers are looking to improve the quality of their hay: alfalfa, red clover and legumes will generally increase forage quality. Supplementing a lesser quality grass hay with a few pounds of alfalfa can infuse more protein and energy into the dry forage. 

Proper Hay Storage and Feeding Practices

Other factors play a role in hay quality as well. How the hay is stored and fed can impact its nutritional value. Experts recommend getting the hay off the ground and covered to reduce nutrient loss. If feeding in hay rings, a skirt on the bottom the bale ring helps reduce waste. There are other styles of hay feeders that can minimize loss as well.

Schmitz states one of the worst-case scenarios is hay that is stored on the ground, under a tree row and fed in a bale ring that doesn’t have any skirting at the base. A combination of those factors can have a big impact on the amount of hay a producer needs to purchase, raise or feed. “Some of those losses may be up to as much as 25 percent,” Schmitz stated.

Assessing Intake Requirements

How much hay to feed also depends on the production stage of the animal and its body condition. “In general, we look at feeding between about 1.7 to 2.25 percent of body weight that they intake,” Schmitz advised. Keep in mind the higher the quality of the hay, the less fiber that is in it, and therefore, the more the animal is going to consume. 

  Animals that have a high level of production should be fed hay with average or above levels of protein and TDN. Animals that are getting close to calving, kidding or lambing may have a restricted capacity from a physical standpoint due to the babies growing in them. In these cases, a hay higher in quality will help the animals get the nutrients they need without having to consume large quantities of dry forage. 

 Additionally, younger animals that have requirements for high nutrient density in their diets should get forage that is excellent in quality. Poor quality hay contains a greater amount of fiber which takes longer to digest. “Because it (high-quality hay) doesn’t have as much fiber, it doesn’t take as long to process through the digestive track and the animals can eat more and get more nutrition,” Schmitz explained.

Supplementing with Grain 

 If producers are feeding a more mature hay that is poorer quality, lower in energy and lower in protein, the need increases for additional sources of energy input. In these situations, livestock experts recommend supplementing with grain and grain byproducts.

 The amount needed to feed or supplement is based on the animal’s size, stage of production, desired level of gain and level of production. There are a few key questions to consider. Are they lactating or not? Are they thin or fat? If they are stock, then how much average daily gain should they achieve? Assessing these factors will help guide the type and amount of hay and grain fed to meet the goals of a producer’s operation.

Lastly, monitoring the body condition of the livestock will help determine how much hay an animal needs to be fed. Producers can use the animal’s body condition as a gauge of whether they are getting too much or too little nutrition. 


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