Is hay still the best feed choice for wintering cows? |

Is hay still the best feed choice for wintering cows?

Producers might want to consider replacing some of hay in their rations with corn this year, says SDSU's Cow/Calf Field Specialist. Staff photo

The feed cost environment for 2013-2014 is dramatically different compared to last year, according to Warren Rusche, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist.

“Corn and corn-derived feeds such as distiller’s grains and silage are only about half the cost of one year ago. Hay and roughage costs are lower as well, but on a percentage basis the price decline has not been as dramatic as compared to corn prices,” Rusche said.

With this in mind, Rusche says there may be an opportunity to exploit these differences in feed prices to reduce winter feed expenses.

In Table 1 he laid out three different rations for 1,400-pound cows in late gestation. The rations were formulated to meet protein requirements and at least maintain body condition. Ration #1 is a traditional hay based diet using alfalfa hay (19 percent crude protein) and grass hay (8 percent crude protein). Ration #2 consists of corn silage, corn stalks and modified distiller’s grains. Ration #3 is a limit-fed diet using 10 pounds of hay (alfalfa and grass) combined with 10 pounds of corn per head per day. The prices are based on published price data from South Dakota feed markets in late November.

“Using these prices, diets utilizing corn or corn-derived feeds are more cost effective compared to diets relying completely on hay,” Rusche said.

Of course, he added, every situation is different and hay costs in some markets may not be as high as the values used here.

“It should be noted that the corn price is for dry corn. In some cases there may be an opportunity to utilize wetter corn that would otherwise be subject to discounts and reduce costs further,” he said.

Implementing some of these strategies requires limiting the cows’ feed intake below what their appetite would be normally. In order to do that successfully, Rusche said the following management factors that need to be considered:

• Diets should be based on actual nutrient analyses.

• Gradually adapt cattle to diet changes, especially if high-starch feeds are used.

• Proper bunk management is extremely important to avoid digestive upsets.

• Allow plenty of room at the bunk and in the lot (at least 30 inches of bunk space and 500 ft2 per cow).

• Limit-fed rations will meet the cows’ nutrient needs, but won’t satisfy their appetite. Strong fences are essential.

• Just like under more traditional management systems, body condition needs to be monitored to make sure that the cattle are on track to meet production goals.

For a more in-depth discussion of limit feeding cows, producers can visit and read “Limit Feeding Strategies for Beef Cows” ( or contact Rusche at 605-882-5140 or

–SDSU Extension

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