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The Hidden Costs of Poor Hay Management

February 17, 2014

Paul Beck, Professor – Animal Science

As input costs (fuel, fertilizer, hay string, equipment, etc.) go up, it is only natural to attempt to contain cost by cutting corners.  Cost of hay and other conserved forages is one of the major expenses in carrying a cow.  It is estimated that winter feeding costs are about 30% of the total cost of running a cow.  All too often this cost reduction from cutting corners comes at the expense of the management of our hay meadow.

Fertilization is estimated to be 70% of the total cost of producing hay and with fertilizer costing around $385/ton for ammonium nitrate, $460/ton for potash, $523/ton for diammonium phosphate and $38/ton for lime, it is easy to see why a producer would cut out fertilization. But what are the consequences for this decision? Research we conducted on producer farms in Lafayette, Hempstead, and Nevada counties in bermudagrass hay meadows indicate that hay yield is increased from 650 pounds per acre to over 2,000 pounds per acre each cutting when 150 pounds of ammonium nitrate (50 units of actual N/acre) is applied after every harvest (28-day harvest interval) even though phosphorus and potassium were applied to all plots. Enterprise budgeting with this indicates that cost per pound of hay (including all overhead and fixed costs) for the unfertilized hay is $0.13/pound compared with $0.05/pound for the fertilized hay, because equipment costs incurred were the same if the cutting interval is maintained at the recommended 28-days. But, nobody I know would cut their hay at 28-day intervals for only 650 pounds of hay! In order to maintain economic equipment use and to spread the cost of equipment operation over more pounds of hay, the cutting interval for unfertilized hay would be extended. It is possible that for unfertilized fields there will be only two hay harvests per season instead of the normal four with fertilization. Fertilized bermudagrass harvested at 4-week intervals normally is about 12% crude protein and 60% total digestible nutrients (which would meet the requirements of a cow in any stage of production), while bermudagrass harvested twice per season will be 10% crude protein and 50% total digestible nutrients (adequate for only a dry pregnant cow). The cost of supplementation (figured on a least cost basis) would make the cost of ‘cheap’ unfertilized hay 25 to 30% more expensive than the well managed ‘expensive’ hay!

It is commonly thought that we really only see a yield response when we put out nitrogen fertilizer and we can forgo the use of phosphorus, potassium, and lime (mining these nutrients from the soil). Research conducted by Rocky Lemus at Mississippi State University found that application of nitrogen only (seasonal yield of 9,200 pounds/acre) to bermudagrass resulted in 75% of the yield obtained with application of nitrogen, lime, and potassium (seasonal yield of 12,000 pounds/acre). But yield reduction is only part of the story, in only 3 years the weed population of plots that did not receive potassium or lime increased to over 50%, increasing the need for herbicide use and creating other problems! Plant populations in poorly managed hay fields change to lower quality grasses (sage grass, bahiagrass), broadleaf weeds, and may result in increases in potentially toxic species (groundsel, dallisgrass).

As we let our hay crop mature, we know there will be a reduction in digestibility and thus an increase in supplementation costs. Mature hay is also not as palatable which leads to increased waste in hay feeding. The greatest hidden cost may be due to issues with toxicity. This year conditions were ideal for formation of fungal alkaloids in mature dallisgrass pastures and hay. Numerous complaints have been expressed about cows being fed hay that developed ‘dallisgrass staggers’ an issue that develops when cattle consume hay containing dallisgrass seeds infected with fungal ergot. Symptoms include muscle tremors and a staggering, ‘goosestepping’ gait. There is no cure for this except removal of cows from affected forage. Death can occur in many instances before symptoms are noticed. Dallisgrass is a wonderful forage that is both palatable and high quality …but mismanagement can result in drastic consequences. Considering the high price of cattle, the best option is to produce well-managed, high-quality hay to avoid these problems.

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