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Don’t waste your expensive feed

Don’t waste your expensive feed

This will be a difficult winter for drought-stricken cow-calf producers. It will be essential to make the best use of available feed stocks and look at ways of reducing wastage of this valuable resource. Cows can be very wasteful creatures especially if forages are fed free choice be it dried hay or bale grazing.

In the 1980s at Melfort Research Centre we evaluated every conceivable design of round bale feeder. We still got major wastage. I had found a tapered cone-style round bale feeder on a friend’s dairy farm in Ontario that appeared to meet all my requirements. It was manufactured in Pennsylvania but unfortunately the shipping costs were prohibitive. Over the years several American universities have evaluated different styles of round bale feeders and all the studies promote the use of this tapered cone-style round bale feeder with an enclosed tub around the bottom. The University of Wisconsin found the tapered cone-style ring feeder significantly reduced hay wastage compared to the 20 to 25 per cent loss from using a bale ring without a solid panel.

A few years back at Lacombe we did a major study involving feeding dry round bale hay rolled on the snow compared to distributing chopped silage on the ground or processing hay through a bale processor and fed on the ground. Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, and Ken Zeigler formerly with Alberta Agriculture and manager of did the painstaking work of separating forage particles from frozen snow and cow manure. They laid large tarps on the ground prior to freeze-up. When the snow came, they fed the cows the feed on top of the snow-covered tarps. Later they gathered up the tarps and did the separations.

“There was 20 per cent loss of greenfeed and dry hay processed through a bale processor. Round bale silage loss was 23 per cent and chopped silage fed on the snow was 26 per cent. All losses consisted of the forage leaves and fine particles, which has the highest nutritional quality. This could mean that you could be losing as much as 25 to 30 per cent in feed value by using these methods. With the high cost of hay this winter it wouldn’t take long to pay for some portable bunk feeders to feed your cows out in a field,” says Yaremcio.

Similar results have been found in studies done in the U.S. and we have excellent information on different ways of reducing feed wastage at

Storage losses in the feed yard can account for the biggest economic losses for the beef farmer. Storing round bales in big piles works if you live in an area with extremely low rainfall but storing bales in a pile can be a major disaster when it rains.

At Melfort we had a very large hay-harvesting study that evaluated all types of hay-harvesting equipment and methods of storing hay. We tried every possible method of storing hay so as to reduce storage losses. Again at Lacombe we continued with this work.

The bottom line… there needs to be an air space between the bales otherwise the bales will rot. We found that moisture from the rain concentrated at all locations where the bales touched. Bales that were placed in long rows by the bale wagon had about one foot of spoilage at each butt end of the bale due to being in contact with the next bale. Bales piled in big pyramids had moisture concentrate along the sides of the bales where they touched. We had major problems in handling these bales as a large portion of the bales were frozen solid due to this moisture. Bales that we piled two vertically and one sideways as a top (mushroom style) had major frozen and spoilage areas all down the sides of the bottom two bales. The livestock crew was not very happy having to work with all this spoiled and frozen hay and straw.

Bales need to be stored on a raised, well-drained area so as not to absorb soil moisture. We found storing bales on a gravel pad or on used tires or on corral rails worked very well in creating an air space under the bales. If you are going to carry over hay or straw bales until next winter I highly recommend that you reconfigure your bales so that there is an air space between the bales. This way your loss due to next summer’s rain will be minimized.

“The University of Wisconsin found net-wrapped bales of alfalfa hay did shed rainfall better than twined-wrapped bales,” adds Yaremcio. “They also found that the bales that were compact with hard cores shed rain better than soft-core bales or bales that were loose by not applying enough tension with the twine. However, some of the advantage of improved water-shedding ability was lost if bales were not stored on a well-drained surface like crushed rock, wood pallets etc. They found that the rainwater ran off of the bales and accumulated at the bottom. When the bales sat directly on the ground, they acted like a sponge and absorbed moisture and significant spoilage occurred at the bottom of the bales.”

In this study, the outside hay rind in net-wrapped bales had significantly higher dry matter and nutrient composition than the twine-wrapped bales. The bale cores were not affected.

Average total dry-matter losses for bales stored outside on the ground were 11.3 per cent for plastic twine-wrapped bales and 7.3 per cent for net wrap. Both of these methods had significantly higher losses than bales stored under cover. They concluded that net wrapping bales for uncovered storage did not substitute for inside storage.

Yaremcio’s own research found storing hay outdoors unprotected, resulted in hay deterioration beyond the visibly damaged layers of the bale. Damage was greater for the leaf fraction of the bale compared to the stems. Chemical analysis of this material indicated that deterioration had occurred even when it wasn’t visually detectable.

Some recent University of Wisconsin research evaluated the preferential consumption of hay from large round bales covered with a new breathable film that sheds precipitation but allows internal moisture to exit the bale through microscopic pores. Bales were either stored indoors with conventional net wrap, outdoors with conventional net wrap, or outdoors with the new breathable film wrap. In all five trials the cows preferred hay wrapped in breathable film over net-wrapped hay stored outdoors. In two trials it was preferred over hay stored indoors.

The exorbitant prices of hay this fall might encourage you to consider building a covered hay shed with four-foot drop-down sides at the roofline to store future hay when the prices are more reasonable or carry-over from one year to the next. We had these types of sheds at Melfort and Lacombe and the stored hay bought in times of low prices really saved my bacon in years of scarcity.

Duane McCartney is a retired forage beef systems research scientist at Lacombe, Alta.

About the author


Duane McCartney is a retired forage-beef systems research scientist at Lacombe, Alta.



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