A couple weeks ago, i needed to take out some hay to my cows. So i did so 2 at a time since i was concerned that our hay trailer would be damaged by the road conditions. After a few trips, i thought of videotaping the last stretch on the gravel road.
A week or so after this video, the roads dried a bit and the road mender made a much needed pass. Much better now.
Although, the dangerous hole over the culvert on Cotton Road on the north side of my property was well repaired (i forgot to take a photo), the rest of the 1 mile stretch remains untouched. However, since it is mostly dry, i can carefully navigate it in my JD Gator.
I had planned to talk about the challenges of feeding hay in the winter in north Missouri last year, but never got around to it. As it turns out, there are a different set of challenges this year, so i’ll roll them in to one blog.
Winter of 2017-2018 was really long, cold, bitter, but it was too long ago and though i know it was a challenge, i can’t remember. So, starting with winter 2018-2019, which was the second consecutive long winter following a drought made for a very tough feeding season despite selling about 30% of my cows/calves.
My plan was to set out hay for bale grazing in July while it was dry, leaving the Netwrap on for protection of the hay, then using electric polybraid to ration it out to the cows in the hopes of minimizing waste. Sounds like a plan, but you what happens to best laid plans. I did set it all out – about 70 bales spaced appropriately on about 5 acres, then set up the tape. then came the bitter winter early on along with deep, deep snow. Of course, then with no way of removing the Netwrap because of snow and ice and snow and wind took down and buried the polybraid. Cows and calves had their way with the hay.
Unfortunately, the amount of mud and trampling destroyed the 1/4 mile roll of polybraid and the Netwrap from 70 bales is buried. I needed to remove it before grass grows but it was impossible even with Dallas using the harrow to try and pull it up a bit. Sadly, most of it is still out in the pasture even now February, 2020. But the resultant organic matter definitely improved forage production!
This year (2019-2020) blessedly has been mild by comparison of the past two winter. Though we had an early cold snap, it didn’t really dig in cold until Jan 11 when a blizzard rolled in (the day i arrived from Fundo Panguilemu) with 1/4 inch of ice by the time i got to my pickup in the economy parking at airport.
I had started feeding hay way back in August to allow as much forage to grow for winter grazing as possible. Thankfully, we had an excellent growing season though a late start in 2019. However, the two previous years of drought has set back our typical production. But haying while it’s dry only works if your growing paddocks are out of reach for the cows – otherwise, they will practically refuse to eat hay if they see green growing grass.
The freezing spell which lasted until the 31st of January allowed us to unroll hay on frozen ground, but couldn’t take off the netwrap very often because it was frozen to the bale. We cut it across the bale so we could at least unroll it, but that leaves the netwrap under the hay.
Today (2 Feb 20), it was warm enough for me to survive outside for a while (actually spent 3 hours outside because it was 55F!), yet though thawed enough that i could pull up some of the netwrap from underneath the hay that the cows had left behind.
While i was gone to Chile (first of January), it was dry enough that Dallas was able to unroll about 22 bales on another location that needed more organic matter, so that is set for later to be eaten. And in December, Brett had set out about 30 bales with netwrap removed on a section that needs soil building with organic matter before breaking through the barely frozen mud. So once the cows run out of grazing (hopefully there is enough to last ’til first of March), then they’ll back track to these areas where hay is already set out.
I set up the polybraid around the remaining bales hoping they won’t need to be fed this winter. Time will tell. But unless it freezes hard again, it may not dry out until July or August.
Welcome to north Missouri – always 2 weeks from a drought in the summer and cow killing mud under sometimes deep snow and ice in the winter. It’s been said there are 3 good days a year in north Missouri.
Last winter was a nightmare of feeding hay. We knew that winter stockpile for grazing was in short supply because we’d had two years of drought followed by wet weather AFTER the growing season in the fall. We sold about 30% of our cows and had a normal supply of hay yet that wasn’t enough because winter began much earlier and wouldn’t let up until late May. This was the second severe and harsh winter in a row. Cows came out of it this spring in pretty rough condition. Not wanting to ever get in that spot again, we researched inline hay trailers to help us haul hay home from local purchases. After watching a lot of Youtube videos and learning about the various brands and what to look for, we decided on a Missouri built model Freedom Hay Trailers that we purchased from a Raymer Farms Sales & Service near Green City, MO. (Actually just accidentally found them on Craigslist whilst searching for more hay this past spring (2019))
Allen purchased another 270 bales here just a couple weeks ago and the weather was perfect for hauling on gravel roads and dumping into pastures, so i got crackin’ and ended up pulling 11 loads to my farm about 13 miles from the hay field to my farm and includes mostly narrow, uneven, hilly, bumpy paved roads followed by 2 miles of steep single lane gravel/dirt roads then pulled into the pasture. Except for loading, i handled the pulling, net removal, and dumping by myself. Allen had hauled several loads from another location earlier this year. I don’t know how we got along now without it! Very convenient time saver.
Hay is more Carbon (C) by dry weight than anything else. When we feed hay we are also adding carbon to the soil in addition to the Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorous (P) discussed in the earlier posts in this series. Adding carbon increases the water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil through increase in soil organic matter.
How much carbon do we add to the soil with hay feeding?
Let’s do the math.
Hay is typically between 40-50% Carbon depending on plant maturity at harvest time. Some of this C is in cells as soluble sugar or other easily digested materials. The bulk of the C is in plant fiber that varies in degree of digestibility.
What’s left behind after feeding is a combination of unconsumed plant material and dung and urine. Both are important contributors to soil health.
Unconsumed hay is intact plant material that helps provide the ‘armor’ on the soil. During the growing season we refer to litter cover on the soil surface. Hay residue provides the same benefits to the water cycle as plant litter.
The consumed part of hay that is not digested comes out as manure. We have already discussed the N & P values of manure and urine following hay feeding. Whereas we can add too much N or P to the soil through excessive hay feeding, it is almost impossible to add too much C.
The digestible part of the hay is utilized by ruminant livestock as their primary energy source. Maintenance quality cow hay may be as low as 50% digestibility while high quality ‘calf hay’ may be close to 70% digestible. The C from digested material is incorporated into body tissue or expelled as CO2.
It is the non-digested plant material that contributes to building soil organic matter through dung returned to the soil. Manure on the ground does not contribute a lot to ‘soil armor’, but it contributes to feeding soil life.
The rate of manure breakdown is largely driven by digestibility of the residual fiber. If rumen microbes could not quickly digest it, soil microbes aren’t much faster. Manure breaks down much more quickly in warm-wet environments compared to cold-dry environments.
Hay residue left on the ground will ultimately contribute to soil organic matter. Many people have the bad habit of wanting to burn residue piles in the Spring. Please, do not!
These piles become enriched soil organic matter sites and can be above average production areas for years to come. Burning piles sends most of the valuable C into the atmosphere.
While in the first year following feeding there may be some weeds grow up on these piles, most of those weeds are making a contribution to soil development or get grazed by the livestock during the growing season.
The bottom line is, each ton of hay fed will contribute about 400 to 600 lbs of C to the soil as either hay residue or manure.
That is a valuable addition to your land. Make the most of it!
If you’re an organization that supports good grazing, you can sponsor On Pasture as well. Sponsors help make sure that great information is always available to help farmers and ranchers be the best they can be.
We have so far only considered the role of buying and feeding hay as a Nitrogen source for your pastures. Hay is also a great source for slow-release Phosphorus to benefit your pastures.
Manufactured P fertilizers have recently been shown to be detrimental to the presence and function of beneficial mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. Using fed hay as a P source rather than concentrated soluble fertilizers feeds the fungi rather than diminishing them.
Factors Limiting Plant Growth
Nitrogen is generally considered to be the first most limiting nutrient for plant growth in terrestrial environments. Phosphorus is very often the 2nd most limiting nutrient. Unlike the N fixation process carried out by legumes in association with Rhizobia bacteria, we cannot create P out of thin air.
P is critical to both plants and animals as all energy transfers within plant and animal are mediated by P containing compounds. Abundant P is necessary to have healthy pastures and livestock.
Almost all P excreted by animals is in the dung. Because most cattle defecations occur when the animal is at rest, dung tends to accumulate where animals congregate – on the feeding line for example, or where cattle bed in hay not consumed. It does not get spread out over the entire pasture area if feeding is limited to small areas of the pasture.
This why spreading the hay out in the feeding process helps the P cycle.
Excess Nutrients Cause Problems
While P is a critical component of life, it also has pollution potential if we are allowing manure to concentrate in areas prone to surface runoff and soil erosion.
Mismanaged hay feeding can lead to excessive runoff of fecal material into surface water leading to aquatic weed growth and algal blooms. The ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay are due to P runoff as well as N runoff.
How Much P Does Hay Feeding Provide?
Using our previous example of bale grazing with over 20 tons of hay/acre fed, the P load would be about 80 lbs/acre. That is not an excessive amount of P, although the N load was quite high.
Since that P is almost all contained in dung pats, it is slowly released back to the soil through microbial decomposition processes. The greater the biological and insect activity in the soil, the quicker the release process.
We only have a possibility of P contamination of surface waters when there is actual water runoff and/or soil erosion taking fecal particles and soil to the riparian areas.
The key to minimizing risk of P pollution from hay feeding is keeping the feeding areas well away from surface water.
If you missed them, catch up by reading Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.
Having a systematic approach to hay feeding is a critical part of maximizing the nutrient benefits you get when feeding hay is a big piece of your pasture fertility program.
We have already seen in the previous post the amount of urinary N that is returned to the soil with each ton of hay fed. We know the amount applied depends on the protein content of the hay. Now let’s look at how you manage the feeding rate.
Let’s Do the Math on Hay Feeding for a Targeted N Application Rate
Remember urinary N is readily available for plant use and is also the form of N that is most likely to be lost to the atmosphere as ammonia or leaching after conversion to nitrate in the soil.
In this example we have 250 cows in the herd and are feeding them about 30 lbs of hay per head per day for a total feed requirement of 7500 lbs/day. We know there will be some feeding waste, so let’s round it up to 4 tons of hay fed per day.
Referring to the table in Part 2 of this series, we know hay at 8% CP will return about 11 lbs of urinary N and 11 lbs of fecal N for each ton of hay fed.
If our target rate of N application is 120 lbs/acre, we could feed on one acre of three days.
What if we have a hay that has protein well above the requirement of the animal?
Dry, pregnant beef cow only needs 7-8% CP. Now we are feeding a 14% CP hay so all the excess N is going to come out in the urine.
Now our urinary N rate per ton of feed is about 31 lbs, so we can only feed one day per acre to apply our target rate of 120 lbs/acre.
Now, Spread the Manure and Urine Across Your Pasture
While we would like to think that if we feed hay on our pastures, the cowsill s run all over and poop all across the field, they do not.
When we have measured manure distribution when feeding hay on snow covered ground, we find typically 80% of the manure falls within 15-20 feet of the feed line. Most of the rest is dropped between today’s feeding strip and the stock water. Very little is returned to the pasture at large unless there is residual grass the cattle are picking at.
Based on the premise that most manure falls within 15-20 ft of the feeding line, we can plan our hay distribution accordingly.
Using the 14% CP hay example and needing to cover one acre every day, we plan our daily feeding to cover a strip one half mile long. In this example, we would feed for 80 days on an 80 acre field to fully fertilize that pasture at 120 lbs N/acre.
It will take a few tries to figure out how fast to drive your pickup to unroll hay or how thick to make your flakes off the big square bales or the windrow width coming out of the bale processor.
The point is you can get a lot more fertility value out of the hay you are feeding if you approach that daily chore with a firm objective in mind.