As winter kicks in through the US, cows need extra nutrition! An extra feeding boost helps to you’re your cows warm and fight off the health problems associated with the inclement weather and drop in temperature.
In most parts of the northern hemisphere, there’s little grazing available at this time of year, which means buying adequate forage to help your cows maintain their body condition.
How Much Hay Does a Cow Eat?
Cows consume 2% of their body weight in forage every day. That means that a 1,200-pound cow needs 24 pounds of hay per day! Factors that may alter this ratio include the cow’s weight, stage of production, and the quality and moisture content of the forage.
How Do You Calculate Hay for Cattle?
Consider several factors when calculating your winter hay requirements, including the following variables.
Weight and Stage of Production
It stands to reason that a 1,600-pound lactating Limousin will need more food than a Highland heifer that only weighs 900 pounds. Not only have they got more bodyweight, but they also need extra nutrients to pump into their milk production.
A milking beef cow needs, on average, around 50% more energy, or total digestible nutrients (TDN), than one that’s not lactating.
While a 500-pound calf requires just 10 pounds of hay per day, a lactating cow that weighs 1,200 pounds will need closer to 50.
Type and Quality of Forage
The type and quality of the forage you’re feeding also affect how much hay your cows need. Hay cut at an advanced stage of maturity contains less protein than younger hay and therefore is less beneficial to your cows.
I read a study from the Beef Cattle Research Council. The study cites how cows will not voluntarily consume more low-quality forage – even when they need more to meet their energy demands!
Here’s another part of their research that caught my attention – Higher fiber content in low-quality forage decreases voluntary intake. (From the Beef Cattle Research Council.)
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Some methods of feeding lead to high levels of hay wastage. Roll a large round bale out in the field, and you could lose as much as 30% of your investment. That also means your cows will get only 70% of the nutrition they need.
Invest in a circular bale feeder, and you could reduce your wastage to just 6%, meaning a financial saving for you and more nutrition for your cows.
Feeding Cows in the Winter FAQs
Feeding your cows in the winter is a ton of work – especially in our insane economy!
That’s why we put together some of the most frequent FAQs homesteaders will encounter when calculating the cost of feeding cows.
We hope these winter cow questions help you!
If you have a 1,200-pound cow that’s not lactating, it will need around 24 pounds of average-quality forage per day, assuming the hay is 100% dry matter. But remember – all hay contains some moisture in it! However, most bales only have roughly 6% to 10% moisture.
That means your cow might only get 21.6 pounds of fodder from every 24 pounds of hay!
To meet that cow’s nutritional requirements, therefore, you need to increase the amount of hay you feed daily to compensate for the amount lost in moisture. So – your cow now needs roughly 26.4 pounds of hay per day.
(I’ve also read that some food sources for cows – like fresh forage – may contain even higher moisture content.)
There are also other variables to consider for winter cow feeding. If you’re feeding your cows loose hay in the field, you’ll lose around 30% of that hay as it gets trodden into the ground. That means each cow now needs just over 34 pounds of hay a day.
Feeding in bale rings can reduce hay wastage to just 6% of your hay, but that still means you now need nearly 28 pounds of hay per cow per day instead of your original 24.
(Your results may vary! These figures are our best estimates – but should serve as useful guidelines.)
COVID19, drought, and fuel prices have caused the cost of hay to go haywire! I also believe that supply line issues also helped hay prices skyrocket to record levels in 2021 – so finding the cheapest way to feed cattle is crucial for many homesteaders this winter.
Bales of hay vary in weight from around 40 pounds to 1,700. A small two-string square bale is the smallest, and a 5×6 foot round bale is the biggest.
As you can see, buying small bales for an average-sized herd of around 100 animals doesn’t make much sense. If each cow needs 28 pounds of hay, you’ll need seven 40-pound bales to feed a cowherd of 10 for one day.
A standard-quality bale of this size costs around $12.99, making your daily expenditure just over $90 per day.
To stock up for the duration of the winter, assuming the cold weather starts in October and ends on the 1st of March, you’ll need to buy $13,590 worth of hay.
But – a large round bale weighs between 1,270 pounds and 1,700 pounds and costs approximately $70 to $100.
(Although, as you know, the cost of commodities for homesteading and farming is all over the place. However, we estimate the price to be roughly $70 – $100. Results may vary based upon where you live!)
That means when you’re calculating how many round bales per cow, you’ll be working based on one round bale lasting four to six days.
That makes your daily expense around $15.50 to $16.50 per day, cutting the cost of your winter stock down to approximately $2,500.
One Final Tip for Feeding Your Cows Over Winter!
Cows eat only 2% of their body weight in hay (wow!) – per day! But, when calculating how much hay (or forage) you need over the winter – there are a few other variables to consider.
Buying large bales is more cost-effective. But, only if you can get good-quality forage and can minimize wastage.
If only poor-quality forage is available, you may need to consider adding a high-quality supplement to your winter-feeding program.
Diversifying your cow’s diet will help ensure your cows get the nutrition they need and is especially important if you have pregnant or lactating cows within the herd.
Also – let us know about the cows on your homestead!
How many cows do you have – and about how much hay do they eat per day?
We’ve noticed that some cows are hungrier than others. We’d love to hear about your experience!
Thanks again for reading – have a great day!
3-pack of natural, tasty Himalayan salt. Perfect for when the foraging season is over - your cows might get bored with eating hay and grains every day!