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Baling Hay for Big, Beefy Cattle

Large Cow in FieldThe temperature may be tropical and the summer hayfield may be a picture of abundance. But it’s time to think about winter — and the nutrition needs of your beef cattle. That means baling the right kind of hay, in the right amount, to ensure your herd keeps weight on during the lean months to come.

A Few Summer Chores

  • Take a hike through the hay pasture. Keep an eye out for toxic weeds, to avoid contaminating your hay and risking your animals’ health with too much buttercup or jimson weed. And remember that hay containing the seeds of such plants becomes a prime dispersing medium for them.
  • If you’re  among those who avoid any kind of herbicides in the baling season, remove the toxic weeds (and dispose of them elsewhere) or burn them out.
  • Keep a close watch on the weather, because haymaking requires exquisite timing. The idea is not only to maximize the number of harvested bales, but to manipulate their nutritional value. Alfalfa, for example, contains the highest protein level, at 18 percent, before it blooms. If baled at full bloom, the crop drops to about 15 percent protein.

How Many Bales of Hay?

Figuring out how many bales your animals will need depends on many variables. Does the wintering herd include youngsters or lactating cows? Their nutritional needs are higher than dry cows or steers. Does the herd have some shelter from snow, wind and rain? In cold weather, wet cows need more food to maintain body temperature and weight. How long and how cold are your winters? Does the climate afford some grazing even in January? Even though dead winter grass offers little nutrition, it’s a source of roughage. Adequate roughage promotes a full feeling and discourages overfeeding on expensive hay and supplements.

The daily feed intake for the average beef cow is roughly comparable to 3 percent of body weight. Some beef producers quote a figure as low as 2 percent, while others opt for 4 percent. For a 1300-pound cow, that means a range of 26 to 52 pounds of hay per day.

Many contributors to online agricultural forums suggest starting out with 2 tons of hay per beef cow in four-season climates. The minimum tonnage should increase in direct proportion to the number of weeks without a producing pasture.

Round bales of hay vary in weight from about 700 pounds (for the 4′ X 5′ size) to 1200 (for the 5′ X 6′). At the low end of the feeding spectrum, this means at least 3 smaller bales per head per winter.

Agricultural extension agents typically advise having more than the minimum on hand, however, to adjust to unpredictable weather and hay spoilage.

Hay Quality Issues

Hay containing higher levels of protein will keep weight on the animals. In addition, cattle chowing down on more nutritious hay need less of it than of low-protein grasses. But higher protein hay can also promote bloat and other digestive problems. As a result, most cattlemen bale a mix of legumes and grasses for their herds.

Traditionally, beef cows and steers are sent to feedlots to be ‘refinished’ with grains before being harvested. Graining promotes weight gain and the marbling associated with good meat flavor.

But the beef industry is rethinking some of the conventional wisdom. In taste tests, meat from cattle fed exclusively on grasses and legumes often outranks meat from grain-fed animals. Farmers keeping their herd exclusively on grass obviously incur higher hay bills and other maintenance costs, but may score a higher price per pound from the growing niche market for grass-fed beef.

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