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Brandon W. Boughen: Hay feeders reduce waste, improve gain

Winter is in full swing here in Denton County and that means tons and tons of hay are being fed to livestock on a daily basis. We may have done our planning and even put our cool season forages to use already but in many cases we are still feeding hay. Right now hay prices for a large round bale of good to premium bermuda grass will run you from $80 to $160 per ton in the field, respectively. If you were lucky enough to purchase yours at a lower cost or produce your own, you may have a bit of wiggle room on your balance sheet.

I have noticed that a large amount of hay is fed by being rolled out or simply set out without using a feeder. Since we are interested in making money and most of us can’t afford to be in the cattle business for the fun of it, I’m going to try and convince you that it is in your best interest to use feeders.

A few universities, such as Michigan State University, have taken the time to look into the real cost associated with wasted hay. In a comprehensive study published in the Journal of Animal Science in 2003, researchers evaluated four feeder designs: cone, ring, trailer and cradle. The study identified the amount of nutrient loss, percentage of hay wasted and the cost associated with the waste. Overall, between the four different feeding methods, the cone feeder wasted the lease amount of hay, offered the lowest amount of nutrient loss and saved on average $1,942 per feeder based on a 20-cow feeder for 200 days.

Another factor to consider is the effect the feeder has on the average daily gain of the livestock. In the North Dakota State University Beef Cattle Range and Research Report published in 2006, it was reported that tapered-cone round bale feeders offered the lowest pounds per day of hay consumed, 31.2 pounds per day, while increasing the average daily gain to 1.34 pounds per day for a 1,363-pound cow. This result has been reported in several other reports and is attributed to keeping the leaf material intact.

To put all of this into perspective, Oklahoma State University research provides that between cone, sheet, ring and poly feeder types, the poly feeder wastes the most at 252 pounds of a 1,200-pound bale and the cone wastes the least at 63 pounds. The economic side of the equation shows us that the poly feeder costs us $2,646 whereas the cone feeder only costs about $668, assuming 180 bales fed per season.

The decreased hay waste more than makes up for the cost of new bale feeders. However, using the cone feeder does require a tractor with a front-end loader, but you were just waiting for a reason to buy a new tractor and now I have given you research supporting your upcoming purchase. To help you identify your own feeder waste, the Noble Foundation has an online Hay Ring Waste Calculator for your use.

In the end, our objective is to maximize gains by reducing inputs. By using new technologies such as cone round-bale feeders you can reduce waste and increase livestock gain.

BRANDON W. BOUGHEN, MAg, is the Denton County extension agent with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. He can be reached at 940-349-2894 or by e-mail at