Feeding poor quality hay

Author: Kristy

By Travis Meteer, University of Illinois Extension

Remember what a miserable year it was trying to get dry hay put up? In west-central Illinois, the rainy weather made it near impossible. In the month of May, we recorded rainfall on 15 of 31 days. In June, rainfall was recorded on 19 of 30 days. Here at the Orr Research Center in Perry rainfall totaled 26.5 inches for the months of May, June, and July. That is 68% of the normal annual rainfall in just 3 months.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude there are copious amounts of poor quality hay to be fed this winter. So what should you be aware of? What can you do to offset the lower nutritive value of this year’s hay?

First, a producer should take time to visually appraise the hay. Go ahead and smell it too. Is it moldy? Does it smell musty? Are the stems big and thick? Are weeds present? Are they woody? Are they spiny or thorny?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then hay intake will be lower. Nutritive value of the hay will likely be lower as well. If the mold infestation is severe, I would not risk feeding it to pregnant or lactating cows. I would consider not feeding it at all. If you must feed it, dilute it or roll it out to allow the cows to pick what they want. Offer them plenty of other feed choices while feeding high risk hay.

Another lurking problem is ergot. Nearly every pasture I was in this spring had some level of infestation. As a result, be looking for black seed heads that will resemble mouse droppings. If you see this, consider not feeding the hay or diluting it with other feedstuffs that are not contaminated.

It would be wise to approach this winter feeding period with a ration that has several components if possible. A diet of hay only has too many risks this year. Hay alone will likely not meet nutrient requirements either. I would consider feeding cornstalks, corn silage, grains, and co-products with your hay. Look at your local bids for feedstuffs. Formulate a least-cost ration with three or four ingredients. This should help mitigate risk of cows consuming too much of a contaminated feed.

I would recommend feeding DDGS or a co-product blend when greater than 7 pounds of corn is needed. Negative associative effects can occur when feeding corn grain greater than 0.5% of cow body weight.

Table 1 and 2 show the amount and cost of supplementing hay with differing energy content.

Table 1. Amount and cost of supplement to meet energy requirements for gestating 1400lb. cow
Hay, TDN Corn, lb Corn, $ DDGS, lb DDGS, $
54 3.7 $0.25 3.1 $0.20
50 4.9 $0.34 4.2 $0.27
46 6.2 $0.42 5.3 $0.34
46, low intake 9.9 $0.67 8.4 $0.54

Corn Price = $3.80/bu.

DDGS Price = $130/ton

Low intake = 1.5% of cow BW instead of 2%

Table 2. Amount and cost of supplement to meet energy requirements for lactating 1400lb. cow
Hay, TDN Corn, lb Corn, $ DDGS, lb DDGS, $
54 5.7 $0.39 4.8 $0.31
50 7.0 $0.47 5.9 $0.38
46 8.2 $0.56 7.0 $0.45
46, low intake 11.9 $0.81 9.6 $0.74

Corn Price = $3.80/bu.

DDGS Price = $130/ton

Low intake = 1.5% of cow BW instead of 2%

Grinding poor quality forages can help increase intake. Be aware of the cost associated with grinding (normally around $10/bale). Also, grinding and mixing hay with other ingredients makes it more difficult for the cow to sort around dangerous components. Thus, it would not be wise to grind moldy or ergot-infested hay and incorporate at high levels of the diet.

Be mindful of the concerns of this year’s hay crop: lower nutritive value, potential mold or ergot contamination, and lower intakes. Understanding the quality of hay can help farmers save cost on supplement, ensure cow’s nutrient requirements are met, and avoid under-supplementing or over-supplementing that may cause poor BCS and subsequent reproduction.

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