Farmer feeding hay bale

How to Minimize Feeding Hay and Increasing Return on Investment

When a producer begins to look at the bottom line of production versus return on investment it will become clear that the more equipment you buy and the costs of operating that equipment quickly adds up and reduces profitability. 

Management Considerations 

As producers begin to consider the steps to minimizing feeding hay and increasing profitability the most important step is to know and understand your soil fertility.  With higher and higher fertilizer prices, a soil test is the best way to make a wise decision concerning fertilizer applications.  Many producers are forsaking a fertilization program or applying a minimal amount.  Many producers are turning to clovers or other legumes and incorporating them into their existing forage stands to take advantage of legumes’ ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. However, if the soil phosphorus and pH levels are not at proper levels the legumes will not establish as well. 


Another major management consideration is knowing the minimum grazing heights for the species of forages that are being grown. Turf growers have it easy in comparison. The grass mowers used in turf management all have height settings on the cutting deck. Livestock producers, through the management of their animals, are the height controls.  Most cool season grasses have a higher minimum grazing height than most warm season grasses.  If you allow livestock to graze too closely, they remove most of the leaf surface leaving very little to carry on the photosynthetic reaction, by which plants produce glucose, which fuels growth in the plant. 

Producers should also consider if they have a forage system or are in a monoculture operation.  Do you depend on one predominant species of grass for the operation or are there multiple species being produced that grow during the different seasons of the year? Depending on the climate zone of the operation having pastures that are cool season or warm season forages predominately but utilize the other to “fill in the gaps.” 

The practice of stockpiling forage is one that must not be overlooked when attempting to minimize hay feeding. Stockpiling allows the animals to harvest the forage directly without the expense of operating machinery.  Allowing forages that carry well into the winter to grow and be grazed in the fall and that do not carry well will play an important role in minimizing hay feeding.   

Rotational Grazing Concepts

To allow livestock to be the harvesters of forages as opposed to using mechanical equipment there are strategies that producers must use to maximize the efficiency of grazing livestock. Rotational grazing is the concept where livestock is moved frequently and given only the amount of forage that they can consume in a given amount of time. For the practice of intensive rotational grazing, also referred to as mob grazing, there are enough animal units placed on a given amount of acreage that will consume forage from a ten to twelve-inch height down to a three-to-four-inch height in a 24-hour period.  The animals are then moved to a new section and fenced as to keep them out of the previously grazed areas to allow for regrowth. 

Benefits of rotational grazing include better consumption of the available forages and even some “weeds”, less waste by trampling of the animals, more evenly grazed pastures as well as the ability to control grazing heights.  When animals are allowed to linger in a given area, they will cause a good percentage of forage to be wasted. By trampling or walking forage into the ground, laying and mashing the grass down, and defecating on the grass will result in significant losses. 

Cows in pasture


Producers should also understand the grazing habits of their animals.  Mature forages tend to be tougher as well as not as “sweet” tasting.  Animals when placed on mature forages with ample space will start grazing in one area and then move to another area.  Those areas that were grazed first will start to regrow and that new growth will be more tender and “sweeter” than the rest of the mature stand.  The animal’s instinct is to come back to that new growth and graze it again.  This time they will graze it even closer.  After a few grazing, those spots will be bare, and weeds love bare soil. 

Strip grazing is another rotational grazing tool.  It is most often used during periods of more rapid forage growth.  With this concept, animals are allotted a certain amount of mature forage each day while being allowed to back graze forage they were previously on.  This daily allotment gives the animals the amount of forage they need but also protects the forage from trampling and defecation. If the livestock has been trained to electric fencing, a single strand of hot wire with step-in posts is all that is needed to give the animals their daily allotment of forage. 

When it comes to minimizing the feeding of hay and increasing return on investment the number one strategy is proper management.  Many techniques for achieving these goals have been discussed here, however, knowing the amount you need to feed your animals, planting forages that can be harvested by the animals at their optimum growth peak, and having the mindset that growing forages is as important as raising our livestock will help us achieve our goals. 


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