The Grazier's Gazette
Hay and beef cattle bjphotographs-iStock-Thinkstock
The true cost of hay must be weighed against the value of nutrients brought in with purchased hay, as well as the savings possible by managed grazing.

To hay or not to hay

Hay is more expensive and time consuming than most producers acknowledge. The advantages of not feeding hay are usually greater than admitted.

I had a conversation recently in which some common mindsets that interfere with profitability in livestock operations were brought out.

An acquaintance asked me if we had started feeding. When I told him that we had not, he said that he had been feeding hay for over a month and followed up with, "I start feeding every year on the fourth of November."

Knowing that he had an unusually wet summer, I asked if he did not have grass left when his normal time to start feeding came around. He replied that he had some grass left but not enough after he shut the cows out of a bigger portion of his pasture than usual so he could make hay; he felt the grass was too good to graze.

I asked if he would not be better off rationing out the forage he stockpiled for hay with temporary fence and saving the expense of making, hauling and feeding hay.

His reply was that he did not have time to be moving electric fence. I didn't argue but tried another track.

"What does it cost you to bale hay, and counting the fertility you would bring in with purchased hay and the fact that you would have more grass to graze. Wouldn't you be ahead buying what hay you need?"

He answered that he hadn't tried to put an exact figure on it but it probably cost him something like $10 or $12 a roll and purchased hay would cost at least four times that. "In 1999 it went to ninety dollars a roll!" he added.

I don't know how many cows this man runs, I was raised to believe if someone wanted you to know how much country they ran or how many cows, they would tell you, but I know he doesn't run a lot of stock. I think if he calculated how much money per cow he has tied up in hay equipment, it might change his mind about getting hay baled for $10 a roll.

He might also refigure the cost of purchased hay. Nebraska University published an article recently where they valued the minerals in a ton of alfalfa hay at $34.50 a ton. This figure included N,P and K, only without putting a value on minor and trace minerals or organic matter. Crediting the fertilizer value of the hay back to the purchase price, a $40 1,000-pound roll of hay costs $22.75.

Further, the minerals in hay do not harm soil life or leach away (provided the manure does not fall on bare ground), as do many common fertilizer materials. In contrast, the minerals from hay are released over time and promote soil health when hay is fed out on the pasture and never in the same place twice.

I haven't calculated hay-making costs lately but the last time I did, many years ago, I sold my hay equipment. At that time I figured that to justify owning a barebones haying rig, I would have to need more than 2,000 rolls a year.

I admit to being prejudiced against hay; I grew up in West Texas at a time when hay was something you fed to horses left in the lot overnight. I moved to a 40-inch rainfall area, looking for quality year-around grazing and quickly found myself making and feeding a lot of hay. My only excuse would have to be, "That's how they do it here."

I left the year-around grazing on the rangelands of west Texas.

I think a major reason for the widespread reliance on stored forage is the belief that dormant forage standing out in the weather cannot be good-quality feed. Sadly, that is a belief on too many operations. Pasturage from areas that have been under continuous grazing all through the growing season, provided the stocking rate was low enough to have some forage left, will likely be so. It will be some old lignified material, lots of weeds (both grass and forbs), and a small amount of quality forage. Animals on this ration will need some help.

If, however, animals are moved frequently, with recovery periods determined by the growth rate of the forage, forage quality and animal performance go up dramatically. Moving more often is better than less often.

I am not going to tell you to quit using hay but most of us feed way too much hay when, with some planning, a lot of hay can be replaced with grazed forage in most places. A day when stock feeds themselves by grazing is a day when you don't have to feed hay.

Then the question is whether to make hay on our own country or to buy it, along with the minerals it contains from our neighbor.

Maybe I am weird, but I really don't miss making hay in blazing heat nor feeding it in bone-chilling cold.

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