• When faced with weathered bales, low hay supplies in the barn and high feed prices, livestock producers must adjust to maintain healthy bottom lines. Photo courtesy of Eric Bailey.

After two years of droughts in Missouri, hay supplies are low, with many producers feeding hay during the summer months and lacking the pasture growth to get the tonnage comparable to previous year’s hay crops. Many producers in southern Missouri reported 50%-75% reductions in first-cutting hay crops in 2023. With such a low availability of hay in the state and high input costs, the price of hay has increased, which adds insult to injury for livestock producers. Minimizing hay waste should be at the forefront of the minds of producers this winter.

Here are some tips to reduce hay waste:

Reduce waste from rot caused by outside storage

Storing hay inside a barn is the gold standard for storage. If hay is not rained on, it will maintain its quality indefinitely apart from vitamins A and E, which can reduce slightly over time.  When hay is stored outside and allowed to be rained and snowed on, spoilage occurs on the outer edge of the bale. Even a couple inches of external spoilage can account for major losses of valuable hay for livestock.

Percent of dry matter of hay lost based on size of bale and depth of weathering on the bale


Depth of the outer layer (inches)






Bale diameter (feet)

4 feet





5 feet





6 feet





Source: Missouri Hay School curriculum

While reducing loss during storage is important, not all farms have adequate barn storage for all of their hay. In this case, producers should consider how they can minimize moisture exposure on the top of bales as well as from the ground.

Stacking bales in a pyramid shape and covering with tarps is a great way to reduce weathering from rain and snow. Also, storing bales on pallets, railroad ties, or a raised gravel or concrete pad is an excellent way to reduce spoilage of the bale from ground moisture. Further, if storing round bales in rows, farmers should leave a few feet in between the rows to allow for better airflow and to prevent rain pooling and seeping into the bales when the rounded edges of the bales are touching.

Consider hay feeders or unrolling

Most farmers would agree that giving any type of livestock access to a bale of hay without a feeder leads to more waste. Research shows that feeding without some type of hay feeder can result in upwards of 45%-57% wastage, depending on the class of livestock and the number of animals. While there is a plethora of hay feeders available at varying price points, using any type of hay feeder will reduce hay waste compared to no feeder. Within the many round bale feeder options, choosing a ring that has an enclosed bottom or one that suspends the bale off the wet ground will help reduce waste.

Some producers prefer to unroll their hay on their pastures. This is an excellent option for more evenly distributing hay waste and manure across the pasture. Taking advantage of this fertilizer wrapped up in net wrap can make improvements to the soil over time. However, when multiple days’ worth of hay is unrolled at once, unrolling hay can have upwards of 40% waste. Producers should consider unrolling only one day’s worth of hay at a time, reducing that waste to around 12%.

Feed less hay more often

Another way to stretch an operation’s hay supply and reduce waste is to feed smaller amounts of hay more often. Feeding one day’s worth of hay will reduce the waste compared to feeding three days’ worth.

Most livestock should consume 2%-3.5% of their body weight in dry matter every day. Calculating daily intake depends on the stage of production of the animals and size of the animals. For example, heavy bred cows that average 1300 pounds will eat about around 2.5% of their bodyweight in dry matter per day. Assuming these cows are being fed hay that is 90% dry matter and 10% moisture, here’s how to do the math:

1,300 lb. cow X 0.025 = 32.5 lbs. of dry matter/day

32.5 lbs. of dry matter / 0.9 = 36 lbs. as fed/cow/day

Ultimately, waste happens during storage as well as feeding and can be utilized as fertilizer for pastures. However, if the goal is to reduce waste, producers should consider how they can minimize moisture infiltration of the bales during storage and feeding. Farmers should also aim to limit the amount of hay that animals can bed down in and defecate on by using a hay feeder and by feeding less hay more often.

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