Small Farm Hay Considerations

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For a small producer, identifying a hay farmer that suits your needs each and every year can be an invaluable asset to your farm. Building and nurturing that relationship may mean you have access to hay during unforeseen events, such as drought or shortage. Creating that relationship gives you an understanding of what you are buying. It allows you to become actively involved in the production of your animal’s diet for a good portion of the year. The benefit to your hay farmer is simply knowing that you are coming back every year. It’s easier to produce a product for a customer if you know your customer! 

There are many considerations when deciding how much hay to put up for the season. For planning purposes, a general estimate is 3% of each animal’s body weight consumed per day (weigh your animals to get an accurate estimate). Waste must be considered and may add 10% or more depending on how the hay is fed. Also plan a decent amount of ‘leftover’ hay as an insurance policy for drought, additional animal purchases, spoilage etc. Consider the different stages of production for your sheep when purchasing your hay. Recognize that your lambs will also be eating hay. The type, quality and cut are also extremely important factors in determining how much to buy. Ask your farmer if they test their hay or even their soils. If not, have the hay tested yourself so you know the quality you’re working with and make necessary adjustments. Consult with your local county extension office for specific nutrition information and how to test hay and interpret results.

Smart feeding to minimize waste should be a priority. Good hay is expensive. Bale feeders can reduce waste and keep hay clean and accessible, as can hanging hay baskets or homemade feeders made with wire panels. Covered feeders on skids make moving the feeders practical on pasture. Make sure the feeders you select are appropriate for sheep to prevent accidents, injury or death.

Store your hay properly to limit losses to spoilage caused by water or animal intrusion. Dry barn lofts, dry barn floor (on pallets), or a dry shed are ideal options for storage. If you don’t have a barn, carports, tent shelters or even heavy-duty tarps in a known dry site can protect your hay reserves. If your hay farmer has the room (and you have a good relationship), buying hay as you need it may be possible.

Plan how you will organize your stockpile, feeding older hay first. Match ease of access with the stage of production, i.e., alfalfa for late gestation and lactating ewes, soft hay for lambs, first cut for dry ewes, etc. Moving the hay may not be an option once it is stored.

By: Allison Rudd, Oxberry Farm, EAPK Member


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