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Virginia Cooperative Extension - Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Spring is a Good Time to Evaluate Forage Needs and Plan for Next Winter

Livestock Update, May 2009

Mark A. McCann, Extension Animal Scientist, VA Tech

Like so many farm chores, about the time you finish one, it is time to plan for the next cycle. Forage programs and winter feed needs are a great example of this occurrence. By the time hay rings are moved out of the pasture, plans for the next winter forage program need to be in place, if not in practice. All too often the annual cycle of these activities and the pace of life on the farm prevent the questioning of their value or examination of the cost/benefit impacts. Reflecting on and mapping out the basic forage needs of the cow herd and their expected costs provide some opportunity to modify management and strategy if warranted.

Table 1 contains the estimated total dry matter needs of a 1200 cow lb over varying winter periods. The dry matter requirement was set at 2% of body weight for ease of comparison. Hay quality and cow stage of production will impact dry matter intake. The dry matter requirement is also adjusted to an as-fed (86% DM) value to reflect actual hay needs. Finally, storage and feeding waste is estimated to average 30%, the larger hay requirement listed should be of the greatest interest since it denotes the actual amount of hay to be produced or purchased to meet cow needs and allow for storage/feeding loss.

Table 1. Tons of hay needed per 1200lb cow for varying feeding periods
  Days of Hay Feeding
1200lb cow 60 90 120
Dry Matter basis (24 lb/cow) .72 1.1 1.4
As-Fed basis (28 lb/cow) .84 1.3 1.7
As- Fed Basis (w/30% hay waste) 1.2 1.8 2.4

Costs displayed in Table 2 are based on the hay value of $85/ton for grass or mixed hay. Expected hay costs are presented with and without 30% storage/feeding loss. These loss or waste percentages vary a good bit by farm and other factors, but 30% is a conservative estimate unless bales are stored in a building or under a hay tarp. Bale losses can reach and pass 50% under the worst conditions of weather, bale density, time exposed and a poor feeding system.

Table 2. Hay costs on a per cow basis with or without hay storage and feeding loss.
  Days of Hay Feeding
  60 90 120
Hay consumed basis $71 $107 $143
Hay consumed + waste basis $102 $153 $215

For such a small part of the year, winter forage needs can have a dramatic impact on annual cow costs. Decisions involving stockpiling fescue in the fall and storage of round bales can reduce the costs of a winter forage program. Be aware that the recent large shifts in other input costs (fuel, fertilizer, equipment, etc.) have made large changes in hay costs and potential value. Many experiences and mindsets regarding winter forage programs were developed and reinforced under different economic conditions and may need to be reconsidered. As with all economic evaluations, the inclusion of individual cost data into an enterprise budget will add more accuracy and validity to the financial conclusions.

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