How will you know how much protein and energy your cows will get when you start feeding your hay and silage?  Or how much supplement to feed?  Find out by following instructions for sampling and testing.

Correct sampling techniques, followed by lab tests of forage quality, are necessary for cattle producers who want to get the most value from their forages and profit from their animals.

Maybe the most important step in sampling hay, and sometimes the most difficult step, is deciding which bales and stacks should be included in each sample.  Ideally, each sample should include only bales that were produced under nearly identical conditions.

Obviously, the place to start grouping is to separate different types of hay, like alfalfa or CRP or corn stalk or meadow hay.  But each cutting of hay probably is different from the other cuttings also, so there is another separation.  And no two fields or meadows are ever exactly the same, especially if they were cut more than two days apart, so that makes another grouping.  And what if part of the field was rained on before it was baled?  The hay made without rain damage probably will be different from hay with rain damage.

After you’ve made all these separations, which could result in quite a few groups of similar bales, then and only then are you ready to sample.  From each group gather a dozen or more cores from different bales or stacks and combine them into one sample.  Be sure to use a good hay probe that can core into at least one foot of the bale.

Finally, send these samples to a certified lab for tests of energy content and protein, maybe nitrates, and any other nutrients of interest to you.

Then use this information to feed your cattle as profitably as possible.

Bruce Anderson, U of Nebraska Forage Specialist


Managing Cow/Calf Hay Costs

One widely adopted hay making technology is the round bale. In 1892 the first stationary round baler was built and Allis Chalmers building the first moving round baler with a pickup in 1947. Two other types of baler followed in 1970 and 1972. The first was a ground rolled bale but the 1972 baler built by Vermeer had a bale chamber and a pickup in front. Many companies followed so that 15 or so were selling round balers by 1975. Round bales are convenient for hay making, feeding, transport and storage. But there are some limitations farmers and ranchers must be aware of. Round bales stored and fed outside can have as much as 50% loss. But if stored and fed inside that loss can be as low as 5-15%. Let’s take a look at the worst case example to illustrate just how costly high hay losses can be.


The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Beef website,, includes some representative budgets which include feed use with losses estimated at 15%. So actual intake of the amounts listed will be 85% of the hay amount listed. I will use the 2015 Central Nebraska budget as my example. With feed losses for hay set at 50%, ranchers would need. 0.31 tons more hay for cows and 0.47 tons more hay for 2 year olds. At $80 per ton for meadow hay, the additional hay needed with 50% loss adds $26.40 to feed cows and $37.40 to feed 2 year olds. A typical 300 cow herd, 84% mature cows and 16% 2-year olds, would spend $6652 for mature cows and $1795 more for 2-year olds, total $8847 more in hay due to high hay losses.


The next question then becomes where on this typical ranch the losses are occurring. Recommendations for storage loss reduction are in a Beef website article: which shows where the losses occur and how to reduce them in storage. Another publication for the University of Missouri discusses ways to reduce feeding losses: These are good resources to utilize when looking for the hay losses on a ranch but when implementing those strategies calculate the cost of implementation. If the implementation costs are more than reduced feed costs, implementing those strategies would make the ranch worse off financially.