by: Stephen B. Blezinger

This past week I spent time at two different meetings where much of the discussion focused on forage supplies produced this past year and what many producers, particularly in the south, will be feeding this winter. While much of this poor quality forage is the result of excessive and poorly timed moisture/rainfall we also can't ignore the fact that there are still parts of the country that are suffering from extended drought conditions. So we go from the extremes of lots of poor quality forage to simply not much forage at all.

The title of this article series is “how expensive is ‘cheap hay'”? In Part 1, we discussed many of the idiosyncrasies of the beef cow hay market. The dairy industry, for the most part, learned long ago that hay supplies need to be bought by weight and there needs to be reference values (typically protein and relative feed value (RFV)) that help provide indications of the nutritional worth of the product. Unfortunately in many (most?) areas, the beef cow producer has not gotten the message. Frankly, a large part of this is due to the fact that there are many hobby producers in the beef industry. These are producers that own less than 40-50 cows. Subsequently, because this is not their main source of income not many of these producers are overly focused on profitability in their herds. If more beef cattle producers were as focused on profits in their beef operation as ought to be, the manner in which the industry handles issues such as how we buy and sell hay would be different.

Let's take both a nutritional and an economic look at this issue, following up on the discussion laid out in Part 1 of this series. Here is the scenario:

A beef cattle producer in Northwest Louisiana has a small cow herd of 50 crossbred cows weighing about 1,100 lbs. each. They are in decent body condition and are all bred to calve beginning in Mid-February. His place is not large enough to run his cows and produce hay so he normally buys his hay supply. He normally buys hay starting in May or June for the coming year and typically budgets about three round bales (desired weight per bale of 1,200 lbs.) per cow for the year since he commonly has some volunteer ryegrass and clover that comes on pretty well by February if he rotates his grazing and fertilizes a bit.

He typically buys his hay from one of a couple of hay producers in the area that produce pretty nice looking hay (in his opinion). Last year he bought from Hay Guy 1 (HG1) as he has in the past but his cows really did not come through the winter all that well, even though he put out his tub supplements like he normally does. He talked to HG1 who told him he would sell fertilized, 4X5, net-wrapped Coastal Bermuda Hay delivered to him again for $45.00 per roll. He talked with Hay Guy 2 (HG2) who said he would sell him fertilized, 4X5, net-wrapped Coastal Bermuda delivered to him for $50 per roll. Well there's no question here, he's going to buy his hay this year from HG1 again! After all it's a better buy, right?

What do we know about these two sources of hay based on the descriptions?

1)      We know both supplies were fertilized.

2)      Size of the bales, 4 feet wide by 5 feet in diameter. To calculate the volume we use the equation for calculating the volume of a cylinder which is V = πr2w where r is the radius of the bale (2 ˝ feet) and w is the width (4 feet). So in this case volume of the bale is 3.14 (π) X (2.5X2.5) X 4. Volume of the bale is 78.5 cubic feet.

3)      Both supplies are net wrapped.

4)      Both supplies will be delivered to him.

5)      We know the price of both supplies of hay

What don't we know about either hay supply?

1)      We don't know the average weight of the hay bales. Remember, in Part 1 we discussed that the weight of individual rolls of hay could vary greatly. The other thing is that an estimate is of very little value. NO one can predict bale weights with any degree of accuracy of consistency. There are simply too many variables. Aside from how proficient the baler operator is and how tightly he can roll the hay (tighter rolling generally produces a heavier bale), the moisture content of the hay can have a significant effect on bale weight. Hay needs to be dry when it is baled, less than 13-14 percent moisture but if rolling density is equal there can be significant differences in weight between hay that is 14 percent moisture vs. one that is 10 percent moisture.

2)      With No. 1 above in mind we don't know the density of the bales. This goes along with the weight of the total bale although since moisture comes into play bales that are heavier but are very similar in moisture content can be assumed to be more tightly rolled. If they are the same size overall, similar in moisture but one is heavier than the other, the density per square foot is higher meaning the hay is more tightly compressed. The advantage here is that the more tightly compressed hay is more impervious to moisture penetration between the time of baling and the time of feeding. This results in a bale that will be better preserved and less prone to deterioration and nutrient loss.

3)      We don't know how the hay was fertilized. Did the producers fertilize his hay meadows according to a soil test (preferably more than one) or did they simply go by what they always do year after year correct or not? Better fertilized forages (fertilized according to soil tests) typically will be more nutrient dense assuming other management is proper.

4)      We don't know what the maturity of the hay was when it way harvested. Was the grass at about a 30 day stage of maturity or was it 45. After a certain point of maturity, the less digestible fiber fractions of the plant increase rapidly causing the nutrient digestibility to decrease by the day. Also, as the plant grows, other nutrient densities such as protein content also decreases rapidly.

5)      Outward observation of the hay can provide some idea of how “clean” the hay is but in honesty we don't know if the hay producer had a weed control program and if the bales may be contaminated with a variety of weeds internally

6)      We don't know the nutrient content of the hay. The only way to determine this is by a forage analyses. While we can't sample every bale we can take a representative sample of about 10 percent of the bales. It is normally recommended to sample at least 10 bales per 100 in a given field at each cutting. If there are significant differences within soil types of the field or in the topography (hills or hillsides vs. low lying areas) it is helpful to sample 10% of the bales in these specific areas. In the case of the producer purchasing the hay, he should ask for at least a couple of forage assays for the 150 bales he is buying.

In the scenario described above let's make a few more assumptions so we can compare the value of his buying decision. Here are some more bale information parameters that can be determined with a bit of work:

From a nutritional standpoint we know that we are getting more from the hay than just protein. We also know that all the protein in hay is not available to the animal but for this exercise we are simply looking at the Crude Protein values. One thing that the numbers above tell us is that the hay from HG2 was also lower in Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF). The NDF values represent more of the less digestible fractions within a hay sample. Higher NDF numbers mean lower digestibility. So, in addition to the fact that the protein in HG1 was lower to begin with, it is also less digestible.

So in comparing the two hays we see that while we initially spend less for HG1 we are getting significantly less protein that also cost more. So in getting less protein we would have to make this protein up from a supplemental source (i.e. to get to the same protein feeding level we would have to supplement more). How much more would this be?

We see from the above that if the producer were to go with HG1 he would have to add an additional 3,570 lbs. of protein. One way this could be done would be to purchase a 20 percent all natural protein range cube. On today's market, a 20 percent cube can be purchased for about $340 per ton or $.17/lb. To provide the total extra protein the producer would need to feed an extra 17,850 lbs. (3,570 ÷ 20%). This would be 8.925 tons which at $340/ton would cost an extra $3,034.50. So the producer would have to spend an extra $2,284.50 in order to provide the same amount of crude protein as if he had initially purchased the hay from HG2. This would be equal to an additional $45.69/cow.

So from this analysis we can see that the “cheaper” hay was really quite a bit more (almost 45 percent more) expensive for the producer. However, unless he did the due diligence to collect the information listed he would probably never have recognized this added cost. This situation plays out every day in this industry given the way many producers typically buy and sell hay and do not take the necessary steps to know what they have or what they are buying.

Certainly there would be less expensive ways to make up that crude protein difference but there would still be extra cost involved to simply equalize the protein supplied by the two hay sources.

Making good purchasing decisions is critical in this business, especially if you are truly concerned with being as profitable as possible in your cattle business. In buying hay, it will not be easy, push suppliers to sell to you on a weight basis and to provide a nutrient profile of the hay they are selling. It is only in this way that good buying decisions can be made.

Finally, as 2015 draws to a close, please accept best Christmas wishes from the Blezinger family. May your holiday time together be filled with Christ's blessings and that your New Year is the most prosperous ever!

Copyright 2015 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger. Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulphur Springs, TX. He can be reached at or at (903) 352-3475. For more information please visit us on at livestock.

Don't forget to BOOKMARK  
Cattle Today Online!