Feed Wasteage - What Can You Do About It?

Criminals thrive on opportunity. Crime Stoppers, Neighbourhood Watch, and police forces all agree that citizens have to take steps to protect themselves. Lock your car, stowing valuables out of sight. Take the key out of your snowmobile, and secure it with a chain and padlock for the night. Install motion detecting lighting outside the garage. All good advice … and when something valuable goes missing, the first questions asked usually involve the security procedures which were employed to protect the valuables. In today's society, it almost seems that honest citizens are held as accountable for theft of their property as those who steal it!

Substitute "farmer" for honest citizen, and barn yard for residence and personal property. Who are the criminals in this scenario? They walk on four legs and masquerade as harmless domestic animals. Beef cows! Each one should be wearing a bandana across its muzzle and a hat pulled low over its eyes. Every day across Canada, millions of cows commit the criminal act of stealing valuable feed!

There's no denying that feed is valuable, whether you grow it yourself or buy it in. And with feed representing 60-70% of the cost of production in a cow-calf enterprise, even a small amount of pilfering by your cows can add up to big dollars. Yes, cows steal your feed, but don't get mad at them … it's not their fault. No, I don't mean a difficult calfhood; I'm referring to their evolutionary background. Cows are grazing animals. They are supposed to spend their lives outdoors, contently grazing on grass and similar plants which are rooted in the soil. They are superbly equipped to grasp stalks with their tongues, rip them off against the hard upper palate, and work them through the grinding action of molars before swallowing the resulting shredded mat. If you watch cows grazing, you will see little evidence of waste. Most of the forage harvested ends up in the rumen. While some standing feed is wasted by trampling and dunging, this is minimal if grazing activity is properly controlled.

However, we now routinely raise beef cattle in Canada in areas where snow depth or tradition prevent grazing during winter, making stored feed a necessity. The most common method of preserving feed for beef cows is large round bales of long stem forage. While this technology is great for saving time and reducing manual labour, it can present major problems at feeding time. Cows are not designed to eat pre-cut, long stem forage tightly packed into bales. While they are adaptable creatures, and quickly learn to extract hay from the bale in a feeder or sitting on the ground, they are not replicating normal grazing action. This causes them to slip into a life of unintentional feed thievery, wasting potentially huge amounts of valuable forage. As they extract stems out of the bale, extra forage is also pulled out and falls to the ground, where it is quickly trampled into oblivion. And we can't discount the ability of cows to sort their feed. They prefer leaves to stems, less mature stems over woody stalks. If given the opportunity, they will select the more palatable feed and leave behind the coarser material. These combine to create the mound that builds up under and around bale feeders over the winter. Your carefully fertilized, cut, baled and transported feed has become a cushion for cows.

How much feed is wasted? Experience as well as research has shown that cows can waste over 40% of the feed placed in a poor round bale feeding system. This is incredible! Just think of the excitement which would greet an announcement by geneticists that they have bred cattle which were 40% more feed efficient than conventional cattle. On many farms, significant improvement in feed efficiency is possible, simply by changing the feeding strategy and types of feeders.

The worst feeding strategy is to feed whole round bales once per week, on the ground, without unrolling or placing them in any feeder structure. Cattle trampling is uncontrolled, with the feed source rapidly becoming unrecognizable as dominant cows fill up and them claim the pile as their lie down area. This can waste over 40% of the feed offered (see Table 1). Just think … out of every 10 bales you harvested, 4 were wasted.

Round bale unrollers have become more popular, allowing the producer to spread the hay out in a long mat, giving all of the cows access to feed at the same time. But timing has as much to do with making unrolling work as the PTO on the tractor. Unrolling enough feed to last a week at a time can still allow a wastage level in the 40% range. When the number of bales unrolled just matches the daily intake of the cows, feed wastage can be reduced to the range of 10 to 12%. In this situation, cattle are actively competing for every mouthful, clustering around the hay as it is rolled out. While this is an improvement, 1 in 10 harvested bales is still lost.

What about steel round bale feeders? Compared with putting out a week's worth of free standing or unrolled bales, feeders filled on a once per week basis reduce wastage by up to 80%. They are certainly worth the investment if feeding is only a weekend chore! There are many different types of feeders on the market. Researchers at Michigan State University compared various types of round bale feeders1. Ring type feeders, with slanted bars, were very effective at limiting waste (see Table 2). This included standard round feeders as well as those with a second row of inward slanting bars which provided a cone-shaped support to the bale. With these types of feeders, cattle wasted only an average of 4.5% of the feed offered. Note that these feeders had slanted rather than vertical bars on the sides. Trailer type feeders, consisting of a wheeled rectangular base with an array of bars around the perimeter, were evaluated as having 11.4% wastage. In comparison, cradle type feeders, which had a rectangular base outfitted with trays and a v-shaped bale holder allowed 14.6% feed wastage.

The cradle type feeders had vertical side bars, which have been shown in the past to be a poor design for controlling wastage in conventional circular feeders. With vertical bars, cattle tend to pull mouthfuls of feed straight back from the bale, with residue spilling out and on to the ground. Slant bars make cattle work a little harder, and they tend to leave their heads in the feeder longer, limiting spillage.

Feed thieves caught in the act
Figure 1. Feed thieves caught in the act

Next time you check the cows, take a good look around the feeding site. Do you see evidence of excessive feed wastage? Don't contribute to cattle delinquency by making it easy for them to steal your feed.

Table 1. Feed Wastage With Round Bale Systems, % of Hay Offered
Feeding Schedule
Feeding Systems
Whole bales on ground Unrolled bales on ground

Table 2. Feed Wastage With Round Bale Feeder Systems, % of Hay Offered
Feeder Type
Ring Feeder, slanted side bars Ring feeder, slanted side bars plus interior cone Trailer type Cradle type
Feed Wastage 3.5% 6.1% 11.4% 14.6%


1D. D. Buskirk*3, A. J. Zanella*, T. M. Harrigan†, J. L. Van Lente*4, L. M. Gnagey*4, and M. J. Kaercher‡ *Departments of Animal Science and †Agricultural Engineering, ‡Extension, Michigan State University

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