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  • Writer's pictureMD-DE Forage Council

Winter Hay Feeding Strategies

by Amanda Grev, Agriculture & Food Systems, Western Maryland Research and Education Center

When it comes to feeding hay during the winter, a variety of feeding strategies can be implemented. Hay can be fed in a confinement or field-based setting, with or without bale feeders, or by utilizing a strategy such as rolling out the hay or bale grazing. Each of these methods carries its own advantages and disadvantages regarding wasted hay, impacts on standing forage, nutrient and manure dispersal, soil health implications, and labor requirements.

Feeding hay out of bale feeders is most often done in a confinement setting or designated feeding area, but can also be done on pasture or hay fields. Advantages to utilizing a bale feeder include minimizing hay waste and feeding losses, with feeder design having a significant impact on the amount of waste. Disadvantages include the machinery and labor requirements needed to move or distribute bales, manure removal if livestock are confined to a given area, and damage from livestock trampling that occurs around feeder sites. If feeding in a single location, providing a footing such as crushed gravel or concrete will help minimize ground damage and mud issues. Alternatively, hay feeding areas can be moved around periodically to minimize the damage to any one given area, provide some manure and nutrient dispersal, and reduce accumulation of waste residue.

Feeding unrolled bales involves unrolling bales out on the ground across a pasture or hay field, thus spreading the hay across a greater feeding area. Advantages of this strategy are that it can minimize the concentrated ground damage that often occurs around feeder sites where livestock have congregated for extended periods of time. It also allows valuable nutrients from hay waste and animal manure to be deposited back onto the soil and spread across a greater area of the field. Decomposing hay residue, along with manure and urine, is distributed across the field and can help improve soil organic matter and increase forage growth in subsequent years. Nutrient retention under this type of setting has been shown to be superior to that of traditional systems that involve handling and spreading manure, even if the manure is composted. Disadvantages to rolling bales out include the labor required to unroll bales and the potential for increased hay waste. The amount of hay wasted will depend on a number of factors, including the quality of the hay and the amount of hay offered at one time.

Bale grazing is the practice of allowing livestock to ‘graze’ hay bales on a hayfield or pasture. Typically, hay bales are spaced across a field in strategic lines in advance to winter feeding and livestock are given access to a portion of bales at one time using electric fencing. After a number of days or once the hay is cleaned up, the fencing is re-set or livestock are rotated to provide access to another portion of the bales. The number of bales offered and the timing can vary, but an optimal bale grazing period will balance labor requirements, animal nutrition, and hay waste. Moving livestock every few weeks requires less labor but will likely result in greater waste and potentially less than optimal gains, while moving livestock every few days requires more labor but will likely limit excessive waste and maximize gains.

Advantages to bale grazing include a reduction in machinery use, fuel costs, and labor during the feeding period. Similar to rolling bales out, bale grazing can also offer benefits in terms of added soil fertility and improved manure distribution. Bales can be strategically placed on poorer areas of the field, such as those with thinning forage, bare spots, or less productive yields. Disadvantages to bale grazing include the potential for hay waste and damage to existing forage stands. Depending on the amount of bales offered at a given time, this method has potential for greater amounts of hay wastage; however, bale rings can still be utilized in this system to help limit hay waste. There is also concern over whether this feeding strategy will damage pasture stands, especially in regions with more rainfall and warmer winters. While this is a legitimate concern, utilizing good management practices can help to minimize these issues.

When it comes to feeding hay in a field-based setting, there are some management strategies that can be implemented to help minimize issues. Here are some tips for success:

- Feed on well-drained soils and avoid feeding near surface water.

- Avoid damage to standing forage by feeding hay bales at low densities. A general recommendation is to feed 4 tons of hay or less per acre, and spacing bales 50’ or more apart can help limit the amount of ground that gets torn up. Declines in pasture quality can mean animals or bales are stocked too heavy.

- Limit the amount of time livestock are fed in a given area. Moving livestock every day or every few days will help minimize ground damage.

- Feeding frequency will impact hay waste. Although it is tempting to provide enough hay for several days, livestock will waste less hay when the amount fed is limited to what is needed each day, as daily feeding will force them to eat hay they might otherwise refuse, trample, or waste. On average, 25% more hay is needed when a 4-day supply is fed with free access.

- When picking feeding areas, select areas that are in need of some improvements or renovation. Prioritize poorer areas of the field, such as those with thinning forage, bare spots, or less productive yields.

- Feed high quality hay to minimize refusals and hay waste.

- Be flexible and be cognizant of animal and weather conditions. If an area is too wet or ground conditions are deteriorating, move livestock to another area or to a dry lot.

It should be recognized that no single feeding strategy will work best for all farms. Instead, producers must weigh the benefits and drawbacks from these feeding methods, select a method based on their goals, and manage accordingly.

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