How to Reduce High Winter Hay Bills

Costs to produce winter hay can exceed $40 per cow.

Published on: Apr 18, 2006

With it becoming ever more costly to make and feed quality hay, windrow or swath grazing is something beef producers across the country should consider as a way of cutting their harvested-feed expense.

Although admitting that costs associated with hay production vary widely according to location, yield and cultural practices, extension educators across the West generally endorse windrow grazing as a means of reducing high winter feed bills. "We're estimating it costs between $16 and $18 a ton to feed hay so you've got the harvest cost as well as the feeding cost and, when you put those together, why, at $40 a ton, hay gets pretty expensive," says University of Nebraska Extension Beef Specialist Don Adams. Adams says that compares to just $10 to $12 a ton a year or two ago.

U of N Range and Forage Specialist Jerry Volesky has conducted trials involving windrow grazing and likes what he sees. Some tests were with sub-irrigated hay meadow, a cool-season grass, and with seeded forages like foxtail millet planted in the summer and, at least in Nebraska, swathed in September for fall or winter grazing.

Says Volesky, "In the case where our research work was mostly on cool-season sub-irrigated meadow perennial grasses (like a smooth brome), we first grazed the meadow pretty hard in May and then from June 1st and for the rest of the summer we just let it re-grow. On Sept. 1 we cut it and put it in windrows and started grazing in November, December, January, and into February. This saved the cost of baling and hauling and feeding back to the cattle." Grazing windrows in the field also returns some nutrients and organic matter back to the soil where the crop was grown.

In March Volesky and fellow Nebraska Extension Educator Aaron Berger published the results of their windrow research in the UofN journal NebGuide. Those wishing a copy of the three-page report or who want to discuss windrow grazing can reach Volesky by calling (308) 696-6710 or emailing

Windrow grazing waste

One of the great misperceptions surrounding the use of swath grazing, in the High Plains at least, has to do with potential wastage. "Some people think when you have a windrow laying from usually September on it's going to rot," says Volesky. Not so in Nebraska. "We've found that the quality of windrows remains very good through the fall and as you get into winter. As you move into that time of year it's becoming drier as far as average rainfall and as long as a person makes a good windrow the hay in that windrow does cure and is preserved quite well."

Waste, he says, is more a matter of how much acreage the cattle are allowed to graze at once than anything else. "It's important that a person use some kind of electric fence to control or strip graze the windrows. In other words, don't give them the whole field at once. Some people portion out two or three days' worth at once."

Energy or protein supplements may be warranted if grazing pregnant or lactating cows and forage analysis is recommended.

Big advantages of little piles

In the Northwest, in states like Oregon and Washington where windrow grazing is already a way of life for many beef producers, rather than leave meadow hay in windrows it's put up in 100- to 200-pound bunches before being fed in the winter.

"After the hay has been cut, it's dried a little bit and instead of putting it in windrows to bale it's put in bunches and left out in the field and grazed that way," says Dave Bohnert, Oregon State University Ruminant Nutritionist.

Bohnert says little bunches have big advantages over bales and even over windrows. As with windrows there isn't, of course, the expense of baling. There is also less leaching of nutrients, and piles don't flatten or mash as easily as windrows and are far more accessible in snow.

Frequently asked questions about windrow grazing

In the University of Nebraska publication NebGuide, Extension educators Jerry Volesky and Aaron Berger answer frequently asked questions about swath or windrow grazing, particularly in Nebraska and other High Plains states. Those questions and answers include:

Q - Won't there be lots of waste because the cattle tend to pick through and trample the windrows?

A - "Controlled, strip-grazing of the windrows is essential to minimizing the amount of waste."

Q - Is it possible to graze swathed hay after a snow?

A - Cattle that know about the windrows will usually graze those windrows through the snow as long as crusts don't seal off the hay. When ice or crusted snow seals off the hay it helps the cattle reach the hay if the crust is broken.

Q - If windrow grazing a perennial hay meadow, will the grass under the windrow die?

A - Especially for High Plains states, there will be a minimum of damage to perennial grass in late summer and early fall because most of the growing season is over.

Q - Won't swathed forage that's waiting to be grazed rot in the windrow?

A - Especially in states like Nebraska, plan for the crop to be swathed in late summer or fall and cut at a higher stubble height so the swaths are not lying directly on the ground. With rain comes an increased possibility of deterioration.