Managing Feed Costs in a Time of Expensive Inputs

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As we enter the fall and look ahead to winter feeding months, hay prices continue to climb. With feed accounting for more than 50% of production costs, managing these expenses is critical to remaining profitable in current times. Two strategies for decreasing feed costs are: 1) extending the grazing season to reduce hay feeding; and 2) making smart hay purchasing decisions to get the most out of your investment.

The grazing season can be extended with improved forage management. With cattle, the Amazing Grazing team at NCSU has coined the term “POW – The Power of One Wire.” Unfortunately, many of our sheep do not respect one wire. While we may have to use multiple wires or poly-net with sheep, the principles of POW still apply with regard to the benefits of temporary fencing. Rotational grazing practices can improve forage utilization, increase forage yield, and improve stand health. Stockpiling, to increase the amount of forage available for grazing in the fall months, can be facilitated by resting pastures (excluding sheep) with temporary fencing. Even when cooler weather sets in, stockpiled forage can allow grazing to continue late into fall or early winter. This extended grazing season prolongs the need to start feeding hay (feeding $150/ton hay is equivalent to approximately $0.32/ewe/day).

When it comes time to purchase hay, cheaper isn’t always better. Knowing the quality of the hay you plan on purchasing can provide valuable information for purchasing decisions. One way to assess the economic value of hay is by calculating the cost per unit of nutrient, specifically TDN (total digestible nutrients, our measure of energy) and CP (crude protein). This can be done with a few easy steps using your forage analysis results. 1) Determine pounds of DM (dry matter) in one ton of hay by multiplying % DM by 2000. 2) Determine pounds of TDN and CP in one ton of hay by multiplying % TDN and % CP by your answer from step 1. 3) Determine cost per unit of TDN and CP by dividing hay cost per ton by pounds of TDN and CP from step 2. While you might pay more per ton, a higher quality hay may actually be a cheaper source of energy and protein. These same steps can be used to evaluate supplemental feeds as well.

Hay Sample*



% CP

$/lb. TDN

$/lb. CP













*assume both hay samples are 88% DM

See the example with two hay samples. While hay #1 costs $20/ton more, cost per lb. of TDN is similar and cost per lb. of CP is actually less due to the higher protein concentration. This means for every pound of protein your sheep need, you can feed it for less with hay #1. Alternatively, for the same cost, your sheep are getting additional protein by feeding hay #1.

Knowing the price of hay is important; but so is knowing bale weights. When you buy an 800 lb. bale, does it really weigh 800 lb.? If that $60 bale that you thought weighed 800 lb. actually weighs 725 lb., cost per ton for that hay is increased $15. Be sure you’re getting what you pay for.

Lastly, minimize hay waste. No hay feeder is perfect but some are better than others at minimizing the amount of hay that ends up as bedding. Keeping your hay dry and purchasing higher quality hay that is more palatable can also help as ewes will desire to eat more and waste less. If ewes waste 15% of your 800 lb. bale, they’re only eating 680 lb. of the bale you paid $60 for. This increases the cost per edible ton from $150 to $176. The combination of hay waste and inaccurate bale weights quickly add up to substantial feed investment loss.

Managing feed costs with these simple methods offer cost saving opportunities, regardless of geographical location. Extending the grazing season with improved forage management, and sound hay buying strategies provide options for financial improvement. These management practices and decision-making factors could have an impactful difference on your operation’s bottom line.

By: Dr. Andrew Weaver, Extension Small Ruminant Specialist, NC State


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