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Stretch Limited Hay Supplies

December 12, 2019

Although growing conditions for hay production were favorable throughout much of North Dakota this year, challenges associated with harvest and transport have left many livestock producers facing a shortage of hay.

North Dakota State University Extension agents from across the state have reported that 10% to 30% of this year’s forage crop is unavailable (that is, it was not harvested or it was harvested but bales are still out in fields). Although conditions vary by county, agents in some areas reported that up to 50% of producers do not have enough forage on hand at this time to meet winter feed needs. Inventory Available Feed

“There are numerous strategies that can be used to help stretch limited forage supplies,” says Janna Block, Extension livestock systems specialist at NDSU’s Hettinger Research Extension Center. “However, the first step is to get a good estimate of what is currently available.”

She recommends producers conduct an inventory of all forages, which includes bale weights and number of bales for each lot of hay. A lot is defined as the same species grown on the same field and harvested within a 48-hour period. Storage losses should be included by using estimates of 20% for hay stored outside and 7% for hay stored inside.

The next step is to determine the number of livestock in each production group (mature cows, bulls, replacement heifers, etc.) and estimate the number of feeding days. In general, dry-matter intake needs can be estimated at 2.5% of body weight.

“This estimate can be refined further with known forage quality, but this is a good place to start,” Block says.

Feeding waste also should be included in calculations for feed needs. Waste can vary significantly, depending on how forage is delivered to the herd, but rolling out bales on pasture typically results in the highest waste due to trampling, overconsumption and contamination from urine and feces. Research indicates that losses for this feeding strategy may range from 25% to 45%.

Assume that a 200-cow operation requires 553 tons of hay on an as-fed basis for a 150-day feeding period. If hay is valued at $80 per ton, monetary losses from hay waste easily could approach $20,000. That does not include additional hay or supplement that would have to be provided due to waste to meet livestock needs.

Use Barrier to Reduce Waste

“When substantial amounts of forages must be fed to livestock on a daily basis, it is a good idea to use some type of barrier to reduce waste,” Block says. “These could include hay feeders, panel feeders, bunks, tire feeders or some other type of barrier. Grinding and/or processing forage also can reduce waste and increase utilization by livestock; however, increased costs are a factor that must be considered.”

More information on assessing forage supplies and calculating feed needs is available from the archive of an NDSU Extension webinar titled “Assessing and Stretching Forage Supplies.” It can be found at

“An understanding of cattle nutrient requirements and nutrients supplied by forage is critical to use hay supplies in a cost-effective and efficient manner,” Block notes. “Proper sampling and laboratory analysis of forages is important for any given year and becomes even more so with extreme weather conditions like the ones experienced this year.”

Results of a forage analysis can be used to allocate certain lots of hay to production groups and determine when or if supplementation will be necessary.

Sort, Feed by Production Groups

If possible, producers should sort and feed livestock by production groups to allow for the best use of forages with varying nutrient concentrations. For example, in general, lower-quality forages (minimum of 50% total digestible nutrients, or TDN, and 7% crude protein, or CP) can be fed to dry, mature beef cows in midgestation. Moderate-quality forages (55% to 58% TDN and 8% to 9% CP) can be used to meet cow requirements during late gestation.

The highest-quality forages (59% to 65% TDN and 10% to 13% CP) should be reserved for first-calf heifers throughout pregnancy, growing calves and mature cows during early lactation.

“It is important to remember that factors such as breed, cow body condition, milk production, age and environment will influence requirements,” Block says. “Computerized ration balancing is typically necessary to determine specific needs for an individual group of animals.”

Also if possible, cows should be sorted and fed based on nutrient requirements (that is, first- and second-calf heifers, old cows, mature cows, etc.) to use forages most efficiently. In addition, producers should keep an eye on body condition scores (BCS) of the cow herd to evaluate the effectiveness of winter feeding programs. Mature cows should be fed to calve at a BCS of 5, with first-calf heifers fed to achieve a BCS of 6 to allow for increased nutrient requirements for growth.

Research has shown a strong relationship between BCS at calving and subsequent reproductive performance. Cows in better condition also are better able to withstand extreme weather conditions. Therefore, achieving and then maintaining desired condition scores now will allow cows to manage colder temperatures without sacrificing condition. Feeding groups may need to be re-evaluated throughout the winter so that lactating, thin and old cows with increased requirements can be fed separately.

“When hay supplies are extremely limited, producers could consider developing a limit-fed ration that contains minimal amounts of forage and greater levels of nutrient-dense feeds such as corn silage, grain and/or byproducts,” Block says. “These alternative feeds will be in high demand this winter across the state, so it is important to determine feed needs as soon as possible to ensure an adequate supply.”

Consider All Expenses

When comparing feed options, include all transportation, storage, waste and feeding expenses. Depending on facilities, available feed resources, costs and management strategies, limit-feeding can be implemented with cows on the ranch or at a commercial lot.

Visit and for more information on this and other alternative winter feeding strategies.

In addition to looking into alternative feeds, considering whether to use ionophores to stretch feed resources this winter might be worthwhile. Ionophores are feed additives that alter rumen microbial populations to increase efficiency of energy use. These products are inexpensive and can be mixed into dry or liquid commercial feeds or mineral mixtures. Research has shown that cows can maintain body condition while consuming 7% to 10% less hay when fed an ionophore.

“Winter feeding represents a significant portion of input costs and is even more challenging when facing current market conditions,” Block says. “All options must be closely evaluated while keeping an eye on the bottom line to ensure that carrying animals through the winter is feasible. Culling strategies should be developed and producers should be prepared to reduce livestock inventory if necessary.”

For more information about managing nutritional needs of livestock through the winter, contact your county’s NDSU Extension office.

Source: North Dakota State University