Efficiently Feeding Beef Cows Round Bales
Do you know how much your cows are eating?
Feed supply for the cows is an issue for many Ontario beef farmers this season. Many producers are retaining more animals than normal, due to depressed cull and breeding cow markets. As well, in some parts of the province, forage yields were low. This means more feed purchases with scarce cash, and an overall incentive to make feed go farther. Feed represents the largest single cost (60 percent of total) in a cow-calf enterprise. The old adage, "a penny saved is a penny earned" never resonated more strongly.
Science tells us that a 1300 lb. dry pregnant cow in good condition needs to eat about 27 lbs. of hay per day to maintain herself and grow her calf. But when farmers project the feed inventory they need for the winter, they may actually estimate their cows feeding needs at 35-40 lbs. of hay per day. Where does the missing feed go? Farmers are really tracking hay disappearance, rather than hay consumed by cows. Disappearance includes parts of bales spoiled during storage, dropped on the way to the feeder, and wasted or refused during the feeding process. Is there opportunity for improvement?
The answer is "yes". With feed harvested and stored many months ago, the main factor we can influence now is feeding efficiency. Cows are notorious wasters of feed. Given the opportunity, they will pull bales apart and tramp them down, select out only the choicest morsels to consume, use the rest as a comfy bedded area to lounge on, and then happily convert this high priced bedding into a manure pack when they get up. This wasn't what you had in mind in July as you rolled up that nice field of forage! The meaningful question is, "do you know how much feed your cows are wasting?"
No feeding system is perfect - the goal is to minimize feed wastage within a workable and cost effective system. Research at the University of Missouri compared the efficiency of several hay feeding systems. The worst case scenario occurred with large round bales, fed free choice without any feeder structure. In this situation the cows wasted 43 percent of the hay offered! Unrolling large bales in the field didn't improve things much, if a week's worth was placed at a time; losses remained in the 40 percent range.
Things improved significantly with feeding on a daily basis, where the appropriate amount of hay offered was matched to the appetite of the group. Unrolling just enough forage to last each day cut losses down to the 12 percent level. In this situation, cattle are actively competing for each mouthful and cluster around the hay as it is being rolled out, so a relatively small amount is refused or spoiled.
Whether feeding daily or weekly, using round bale feeders reduced waste. When offering a week's worth of feed at a time, they cut waste by 80 percent relative to no feeder, in the range of 5-6 percent of the total feed supplied. Daily feeding using ring type feeders also had low wastage, in the 5 percent range. If feeding daily, there must be enough feeders to allow each cow to eat at the same time. Feeding twice a week or once a week requires less time and labour, but you need enough round bale feeders to hold the required total amount of feed.
A study at Michigan State University compared feed wastage among different types of round bale feeders. Ring and ring/cone type feeders were the most efficient, resulting in an average of only 4.5 percent waste, while trailer type feeders had 11.4 percent wastage. Cradle type feeders were least efficient, with 14.6 percent of hay wasted. These results indicate that feeder choice is important.
Hay production or purchasing costs are constant whether the forage ends up inside a cow or as compost. Wastage among systems for feed can range from 5 percent to 40 percent. Over a 200-day feeding period, this can change the feed inventory required from 5670 lbs. to 7560 lbs., or 2.8 tons to 3.8 tons. This would be a difference of $40 to $90 per cow per season, depending on your hay cost. Even moving from a moderately efficient system (15 percent waste) to a very efficient system (5 percent waste) would save 600 lbs. of hay per animal, or $12 to $27 per head.
How much hay is utilized on your farm per cow per day during the feeding season? How does this compare with what the cows are actually eating? Evaluate your round bale feeding system and see if you need to solve a disappearing act!
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