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Stretch Your Hay Dollars

December 8, 2012
By: John Buckner, Farm Journal Executive Editor
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Feeder design makes a difference

What’s big and round and used on cattle farms? That would be a round bale feeder—and the design of that feeder can make you money. Take one part animal husbandry, one part industrial design material considerations and one part form-follows-function thinking, and you’ve got a recipe for feeding livestock with as little as 6% loss of total bale weight, according to Oklahoma State University (OSU) research.

The quality and cost of feed have always been serious considerations for cattle producers, but the seriousness is amplified by this year’s drought. Quality hay costs as much as $100 for a 1,200-lb. bale this year, and the cost is actually higher if you figure in the waste. OSU found that the popular open bottom feeders can waste as much as 21% of the original bale weight. A $100 bale becomes a $121 bale if you are using an open bottom feeder—that’s $202 a ton before delivery costs are added.

"The opportunity to minimize waste is valuable," says Justin Sexten, Univer-sity of Missouri (MU) Extension beef specialist. With feed cost at 40% to 60% of the annual budget of a typical cow–calf operation, it can be a profit breaker. Bring on the design engineers.

Sexten says that design additions such as cone-shaped central bale supports, solid skirting and diagonally welded bars that separate cows at the feeder are modifications that are aimed at preventing feed waste as well as influencing feed intake, which can determine performance.

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Round versus square. In competitive feeding situations, dominant behavior can sometimes be present. This leads to restless feeding, which in turn reduces feed intake. Cattle have a near 360° sweep of vision, with only a narrow blind spot directly behind them. A Michigan State University (MSU) study found that round feeder geometry (as opposed to square feeders) might allow cattle to feel as though they have a larger flight zone, reducing the surprise they experience when an aggressive cow tries to assert its position at the feeder.

Top rail or top solid skirting. Feed losses occur when cows pull hay and toss it over their back or along their side, eventually trampling the feed. MSU research showed that "an animal’s ability to throw its head and toss feed is limited when their head is beneath a rail, such as a top rail."

Diagonal manger separators. MSU research shows that slanted, as opposed to straight, manger bars serve as a light animal restraint, depending on the bar angle and spacing. They might force the cows to rotate their heads when entering or leaving the feeder, thereby reducing backouts which, contribute to fewer feeding transitions and more feed intake.

Central cone or chain bale supports. This physical means of keeping the hay off the ground prevented as much as 50% waste compared with open bottom feeders in the MSU study.

MU Extension’s Sexten says one benefit might be that the bale is eaten from the bottom to the top for more efficient intake and less waste. Cattle might also have to reach further for the hay, which would discourage them from backing away from the feeder while eating and dropping hay to the ground in the process.

Bottom solid skirting. MU research shows that when solid skirting is included around the open feeder bottom, cows can’t push hay out the sides, saving 10% of waste from trampling and manure contamination. A similar study at OSU shows 13% savings when compared with an open feeder.

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