HOW EXPENSIVE IS "CHEAP" HAY?

by: Stephen B. Blezinger
PhD, PAS

Part 1

Every year, countless cattle operations find themselves in a similar situation. For one reason or another it becomes necessary for them to purchase at least some of the hay they will need for winter feeding. In some cases they may purchase all of this hay either by choice or out of necessity. As a cattle producer you may be in this position. Keep in mind that for many cattle operations, the hay source is generally the main source of nutrients for the herd and provides the vast majority of the protein and energy the cow needs (hopefully).

In some cases a farm simply will not produce an adequate amount of hay to meet the needs of the existing cow herd. This may be caused by a variety of conditions such as:

1) Very dry conditions during the growing season.

2) Excessively wet conditions (such as was experienced earlier in 2015 across much of the south).

3) Insect infestation resulting in significant plant losses (army worms, grass hoppers, etc.)

4) A combination of effects.

Some farms simply choose to purchase their hay not wishing to take up pasture space for hay meadows, wanting to deal with the custom harvesting process or not wanting to purchase equipment of their own. Use of custom balers is common where a farm is not large enough to warrant owning its own hay harvesting equipment. However, in many cases a custom baler may not be able to get to the producers farm in a timely manner because of other customers, weather, mechanical issues, etc. This commonly creates situations where timing becomes a problem, forages can become excessively mature, weather damaged, etc. and overall hay quality is diminished greatly.

Whatever the case, purchasing hay becomes necessary for the producer.

Buying hay correctly is not an easy task. One of the first challenges cattlemen have to overcome is the compulsion to buy the cheapest thing they can find. Over the years I have worked with countless operations that thought they had a great deal because the hay they purchased seemed very inexpensive (very low cost per bale). Only later did they find out that the bales were not very dense, were very poor quality (old, very mature when baled, included a lot of weeds and trash, etc.) was put up too wet resulting in molding and so on.

Additionally, as with other businesses, there are, unfortunately, any number of unscrupulous individuals in the hay selling business. Over the years I have had numerous altercations with hay traders over what they were attempting to sell a client. This includes one alfalfa hauler who threatened to whip my fanny when I suggested we pull a sample and get a quick test of what he had brought a dairy client. Visually it did not appear to be what we understood the dairy was supposed to be receiving (poor color, very coarse, not a lot of leaf). The dairyman stepped in, we sampled it, ran it to the local lab for a quick test and found out it was nowhere near what had been promised. The load was refused and this probably saved the dairyman thousands of dollars! Knowing who you are dealing with is very important.

In many cases the desire to save money compels the cattleman to look for the cheapest thing he can find. And in many cases the cheapest hay can ultimately cost him much more than if he had done a little more research and spent a bit more money for better quality, more weight, and so on. Let's discuss some of the issues facing cattlemen when entering the hay market.

1) Buying hay by the bale is NEVER a good thing but in many areas it is the norm. Unfortunately, the grass hay market in the beef industry is commonly based on the trading of round bales of hay. In some areas and with some traders it may be possible to buy the hay based on weight, generally expressed in dollars per ton. This is how most of the hay is traded in the dairy industry. A great deal of hay (particularly alfalfa) is sold in the 4'X4'X8' square bales which stacks well on a flatbed truck and can be shipped hundreds if not thousands of miles in some cases. This hay is normally sold by the ton so the actual weight of each individual bale is irrelevant.

Beef cow hay, as mentioned, in many locations (not all) is generally sold by the bale. This is true whether they are large, round or small, square bales. When considering the large round bale market you find a number of factors to be true:

1. There is a lot of variation in the sizes of bales produced and how they are wrapped. You will find 4X4, 4X5, 4X5 1/2, 5X5, 5X6, etc. and infinite variation in between based on the setting of the baler and the abilities of the operator. This means there is a great deal of difference in the volume of hay per bale and with the volume (cubic feet per bale) comes differences in weight per bale. You want to get the most for your money assuming the quality is right. One issue on bale size is that many producers do not like producing a bale that is more than 4 feet wide. A big reason for this is that when loaded on a semi-trailer, 2 bales wide, the width is only 8 feet. Bales that are 5 feet wide, while preferable by the person feeding since it is a larger bale, when stacked together on a truck, creates a load that is 10 feet wide and may require a special permit to haul down the highway if going any significant distance. This can also require a specially equipped trailer to handle these wider loads.

Bales may be wrapped using a plastic netting (my preference), plastic twine or sisal (fiber) twine. The plastic netting or plastic twine generally holds the bale the best and netting is better than twine. Sisal twine will deteriorate fairly rapidly and allow bales to fall apart much sooner. In any case the twine or netting should be removed prior to feeding.

2. There is a lot of variation in the weight of bales produced. Aside from the difference in the volume of the hay in a bale based on its size the density of the bale can vary greatly. This is based on a number of factors as well including the type of baler, the ability of the operator, how the baler is set up, the type of forage and the moisture level of the hay at the time of baling. Some hay producers will swear by certain brands of balers that they create a bigger, denser bale. Others will swear that the operator is the key factor. Bales can vary in weight from 750 lbs. to 1,300 lbs. and more. It is generally preferable to purchase a big, heavy bale again, assuming the quality is good.

1) There is a lot of variation in the nutrient content of bales produced. We've discussed hay nutrient level repeatedly in these articles. The nutrient levels of hay can vary greatly depending on the species of forage, fertilization level including liming and micronutrient applications, weed control, age or plant maturity, digestibility (this is largely tied to maturity).

2) There can be huge differences in levels of contamination in bales. The buyer must be very careful when buying hay that may be contaminated with countless problem materials including sticks, weeds, plastic, cans, trash, wire, bones, dirt, rocks, vines, thorns, you name it. These materials can create huge problems if ingested by the cow, reduce intake greatly or contaminate clean pastures with weed seeds. I have personally seen examples of all of the items listed as well as extremes including a 4' 2X4, limbs the size of my arm, bales that were 50 percent thorn bushes, plastic soft drink and water bottles, etc. It's astonishing what can be run through a hay baler. It's also astonishing what some operators will bale up in an effort to have more bales to sell.

3) Many factors go into the overall value of the hay that is purchased but the integrity of the producer/seller is Number 1. Finding a sound reputable hay producer or seller is the hay buyer's number one priority. It is critical to locate a producer who will sell you a top quality hay bale and will stand behind that quality. Remember poor quality hay can cost thousands of dollars in lost performance, even lost animals. It can require the feeding of much more supplemental feed which is always expensive.

Let's make some comparisons based on these comments.

1) A hay buyer finds two different sources of hay, one selling round bales of Bermuda hay that are 4X5 in size, are twine wrapped and cost $45 per roll. The seller tells the buyer the average weight is ~1,000 lbs. per bale. The buyer decides to buy a load (20 bales) stops at a Pilot truck stop on the way home to weigh the load and figures out that these bales actually only average 850 lbs. per bale. Based on this the hay purchased is 5.3 cents per lb. or is $106 per ton or corrected value of $53 per 1000 lb. roll of hay. The next week he buys another 20 bales of Bermuda hay that are 4X5, and are net wrapped. He pays $50 per roll for this hay. The seller tells him the bales average about 1000 lbs. each. He once again weighs the bales and finds out these actually average 1,100 lbs. each. This hay is then worth 4.5 cents per lb. or costs $90 per ton. The corrected value per 1000 lb. roll of hay is $45. So the hay that apparently cost more is actually cheaper.

2) A hay buyer finds two hay suppliers that can sell him round bales of Bermuda hay for $45 each. He pulls a sample from a bale of each hay supply and has it tested and finds that both sources are averaging about eight percent protein with about 35 percent ADF and 53 percent NDF so comparable in protein content and in digestibility. He buys 50 bales from each seller. As he starts to feed the hay he discovers that the bales from one of the suppliers has a large amount of weed contamination including thistles and berry vines. In most cases the cows leave at least 20-30 percent of the bale uneaten. This means that the cost of these bales were actually, on average, 25 percent more expensive because of the waste from weed and vine contamination. So these bales, instead of costing $45 per bale actually cost $56.25 each.

It would be possible to go through any number of other examples such as these. But experience with hay buying, particularly in the beef industry where hay is traded by the bales has taught us a number of lessons. These include:

1) There is NOTHING more important than buying from a reputable, ethical hay producer/seller. One that is concerned with selling his customer a high quality, consistent product.

2) The buyer should begin searching for sources well in advance of when he needs to make purchases. It is recommended for the hay buyer to begin searching for hay producers in the spring prior to hay season. Determine about how much hay will be needed and begin talking with hay producers about what they expect to harvest and negotiate a deal to buy hay through the course of the hay season. Discuss how (if) the hay will be fertilized, what other treatments will or have been applied (herbicide), the anticipated size/weight of the bales (if buying by weight can be negotiated, all the better). Work on developing a relationship with this and other producers in expectation that you may be able to buy from them again in following years.

3) As hay is produced examine as many bales as possible and test about 10 percent of the hay purchased, sampling random bales to determine nutrient levels prior to feeding. This will allow you to plan your supplementation needs for the feeding season. This is critical to properly balance your program and to insure the cow herd is fed correctly over the coming months.

It becomes obvious that when purchasing hay there is a LOT to take into consideration if it is to be done correctly and to the producer's greatest performance and economic benefit. In part 2 of this series we will examine the nutritional implications and how even small errors can have huge implications.

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 sblez@verizon.net or at (903) 352-3475. For more information please visit us on at facebook.com/reveillelivestock.







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