I am often asked for advice from new cattle owners about feeding hay to the animals they purchase. How do they determine if the hay they are buying is good quality, where can they get a safe feeder to put the round bales in, how many bales will they need for their cattle and how can they monitor to make sure the hay they are buying is doing the job they need it to do?
Round bales are the most economical method to feed large numbers of cattle, but you want to be sure most of the hay actually goes into the cows and isn’t wasted on the ground. This makes it important to buy good round bale feeders. There are several styles on the market suitable for Texas Longhorn cattle.
I use one from Swift Six Ag Works, LLC to feed my cows and have used them for many years. The feeders are constructed of 11 gauge 8″ X 2″ tubing skids and 2″X 2″ rolled square tubing which forms the “rib cage” cradle for the #9 x 3/4″ expanded metal basket. Units are mig welded and hot dip zinc galvanized to 3+ mil thickness. Because of the “rib cage” design they are friendly to horned cattle. In all the years of using them, I have not had a cow get caught in one of the feeders and this is the only round bale feeder I can testify to that about.
Another round bale feeder used for horned cattle is the Priefert Round bale horse feeder which is a large ring feeder that sits on feet and circles the hay bale. I have used these in the past but had some problems with them. They do not have any protection at the top to prevent the cattle from knocking the hay out of the feeders and when I used these, I found I had quite a bit of waste of my hay. Also, after a while, the feet would rust off and the feeder would sit on the ground which made them too low, and some cattle would get inside the feeder. The feeder consists of three pieces which bolt together and after a while, the areas that bolt together will rust and the bolts will not hold the pieces well. So, while these work fairly well when new, the overall life use was not as good for me.
There are also some variations on these which have loops at the top which the cattle slip their necks through to eat the hay. These protect the hay better but when I tried a couple of these, I watched dominant cattle approach submissive cattle and I felt the submissive cattle were not able to get away from the hay bale as quickly as they wanted to. I even had one cow get the tip of her horn caught in the loops as she was backing out and break the tip of her horn. We cut the loops off after that and I did not buy any more of those.
Round bale feeders made for commercial polled cattle will not work for horned cattle. You want to study any type of feeder you buy and figure out anyway a cow could get her horns or feet hung up in the feeder so you can keep your cattle safe.
Another consideration is how many cows can eat at one round bale feeder. If you have three of four big Texas Longhorn steers (or more) in the pasture they can really dominate a hay bale. The same goes for a breeding bull. Many times, when they finish feeding, they will make themselves comfortable and lay down right at the bottom of the bale. Why go out of the cold ground when they have a warm round bale to snuggle up to? This can sure interfere with your cows getting to feed on all the hay they want.
I think you should spend time in your pasture watching your cows at the round bale feeders. Find out what their patterns are. One theory is the dominant ones will get their fill, then when they leave the bales to go graze, the submissive cattle can come eat hay, but I have seen that when the dominant cows go out to graze the submissive cattle follow them. They do not like to stay behind and eat hay by themselves. So, I try to put out enough bales for all to be able to eat comfortably. I do not mean all at one time, just so all the cattle get to eat to maintain their body weight. In my herd, I put out a round bale for each 10-12 cows. If I have heifers in a pasture for breeding, I may offer more bales per animal, so the heifers don’t have to compete with the mature cows.
Your best option is to study your cows and get to know them. Do you have a cow or two that doesn’t maintain her body weight? Watch her to see if she is on the submissive side – always moving away from other cows – and not getting to the hay enough. Sometimes when a cow has failed to get her turn to eat, she will just quit trying. So, offer more hay or move her to a less competitive pasture.
I once visited a new breeder who asked me to look at his cattle because he felt they were just not doing well. He probably had about forty to fifty head and he told me he kept hay in front of them all the time. When we went to the field, I saw that he had two round bales out. Some of his cattle looked fine but some were extremely thin. I explained to him that even though he always kept hay out the total amount of hay was not enough for the cattle and many of the animals were not getting to eat. I suggested he bring a round bale out and roll it out on the ground so all the animals could eat at one time. The cows attacked the hay and cleaned it up in front of us. He was amazed and truly did not realize that many of his cows were not getting to eat the hay they needed.
So that brings us to another way to feed round bales – rolling them out. The advantage here is that all the cattle get to eat at one time and if you are feeding a pasture that will clean up a complete round bale this works very well. Sometimes even if there is enough left over for the calves to bed down in or for the cows to clean up the second day this still works great but no longer because after two days it will be wasted. During very adverse conditions rolling hay out allows all the cattle to eat at the same time and gives them bedding after they have eaten and if you can roll it out in a protected area you are ahead of the game.
When you buy your round bales you can always ask your hay provider if they test their hay. Most hay producers do not but many will allow you to test the hay before you buy the hay so you know what you are buying. Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory, http://soiltesting.tamu.edu/, can test your hay for you. They have a submittal form on the website to tell you how to collect and submit a hay sample for testing. Knowing ahead of time what you are feeding can save you money on your feed bill during the winter months and keep your cattle looking better.
I hope this is beneficial to you in determining how to buy, feed and test hay which you will find to be one of your biggest expenses and one of the most important feeds for your cattle in the winter. Remember, cattle use hay to maintain their weight but also their body heat during winter so be sure they have it available at all times during those cold days and nights.