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Minimizing the impact of hay feeding

Dennis Hancock for Progressive Forage Published on 26 September 2016

There are nearly as many ways to feed hay as there are farms in the U.S. Everyone seems to have their own method. Despite significantly lower fertilizer prices in 2016, hay and baleage bales are still expensive. So, a number of articles have been penned over the years to keep costs low by minimizing hay feeding losses. Yet, that is only part of the story.

Hay feeding losses

The reason so many articles have been written about hay feeding losses is that it is considered the “low-hanging fruit” of feed efficiency. A brief review of the research reports on hay feeding losses (Table 1) would quickly encourage one to avoid simply feeding a round bale on the ground without any protection. In fact, one rarely sees many serious farming operations still feeding hay or baleage in that way.

Typical hay feeding losses

Though minimizing wasted forage is a key concern, it is far from the only concern. For most livestock farms, the biggest reason they feed hay the way that they do is the time and convenience factor.

Time spent feeding

In a recent trial, we compared the time expended feeding dry hay in six 1.7-acre pens of beef heifers. We compared two styles of mechanized bale feeders, a hay unroller, a hay wagon, a hay ring and a control (unprotected bale). These devices are depicted in Figure 1. We recorded the length of time it took to load the bales from the storage area and the time elapsed from when the equipment entered the pen until the bale was fed and the pen was exited. To eliminate any differences in distance from the bale storage area to the pens, time spent transporting the bale was withheld from the comparison. Each method was compared simultaneously and replicated four times.

hay feeding methods

In this comparison, there was little to no difference in the time spent loading the bales at the storage area. As one would expect, there was a difference in the amount of time it took to feed the bales. Figure 2 illustrates the relative increase in the time spent feeding compared to simply placing the bale in the field without any protection (control). The mechanical bale feeders unroll and pull apart the bale more aggressively than simply unrolling the bale across the ground, but are less destructive than a bale grinder. Those feeders did not take significantly more time to feed a bale than simply placing the bale.

time spent feeding a bale

Using a hay ring increased the amount of time to feed a bale by approximately 30 percent. This is because the hay ring had to be repositioned by lifting it off of the previous spot and over the new bale, in this case, using the fork on the front-end loader of the tractor. The hay wagon also took more time than the control, because the wagon had to be unhooked from the drawbar by hand. Using a bale unroller took longer than any other method, requiring nearly 2.5 times as much time to feed a bale.

The impact of feeding hay

The effects of feeding hay in a certain area can often be measured for months or even years after the fact. Anyone who has looked at an aerial image of their farm can usually spot the hay feeding areas rather quickly. In our study, we measured the area that was impacted by the hay feeding, including any area where residue remained or there was evidence of physical damage to the ground from the hoof traffic.

Evidence of hay feeding and compaction was seen on an average of 240 square feet in the hay ring treatment pens, the least of any treatment. The control treatment was higher, with more than twice the area being impacted (501 square feet). The hay wagon used in the trial was three times as big as would be needed to feed one bale, so it had a larger footprint. The mechanical bale feeders and bale unroller exhibited the largest area where hay had evidently been fed. But this is by design. Those methods purposefully spread hay out over a larger area.

We also measured the thickness of the residue left behind after the hay feeding period. Since the hay wagon could be removed and, with it, nearly all of the unconsumed hay, we excluded it from the comparison. Both of the mechanical bale feeders and the bale unroller left less than 0.4 dry pounds of residue per square foot on the area that they impacted. However, all other methods left more than 0.8 dry pounds of residue per square foot. It is estimated that anything more than 0.5 dry pounds of waste hay per square foot would be enough to smother or hold back any plants buried beneath the residue.

hoof damage figure

The hay residue is not the only lingering side effect of hay feeding. Concentrating hoof damage compacts the soil and damages the pasture that lies beneath. We measured the amount of area that had been physically disturbed or compacted by hoof damage (see Figure 3). Both of the mechanical bale feeders and the bale unroller left little or no sign of hoof damage. This is by design, of course, as these feeding methods spread the hay out and do not concentrate the hoof traffic. Whether feeding a bale with or without a hay ring, hoof traffic is concentrated right around the bale’s periphery. In this study, the hay wagon had the largest area affected by hoof damage. However, the reason it was so much larger than the hay ring method is mainly because the hay wagon was designed for two to three bales rather than just the one bale we were feeding.

This amount of soil disturbance will increase the risk of soil erosion. In addition, animal wastes will likely be more concentrated in these areas as well. Consequently, the concentration of nutrients in these areas prevents the utilization of those nutrients across the whole pasture and may increase the risk of nutrient runoff.

There is no perfect hay feeding system, but there are definite pros, cons and trade-offs with each method. The progressive forage growers need to balance cost- and time-efficiency while minimizing the long-term impacts.  end mark

Dennis Hancock
  • Dennis Hancock

  • Forage Extension Specialist
  • University of Georgia
  • Email Dennis Hancock