Hay y'all! Estimating your hay needs.
Updated: Nov 7, 2022
How much hay do you need to store for the winter?
Estimating how much hay you need for the winter is an important factor in most cattle, horse, goat and sheep operations. As you many imagine we talk about hay a lot here at Farmbrite. Producers want to know how much hay they have and how much hay their animals will eat through the winter and spring. Here is some helpful information to help guide you through those calculations.
Size and weights of Hay Bales
What does a bale of hay weigh? Here is a chart that helps to roughly determine the size and weight that different size bales can come in. (There is another chart at the bottom of this article as well.)
Why should you care about the weight of your hay?
Knowing the weight and nutritional content of your hay not only helps to ensure that you have enough livestock fodder on hand for winter, it also helps to make sure that you provide ample nutrients and protein to your animals.
What is Hay?
Hay is a mixture of grasses, legumes, or other plants that have been cut, dried and stored. It is typically utilized as animal fodder for livestock, such as cattle, goats, sheep, horses, but can also be used for smaller animals such as rabbits.
Hay is often harvested and used as animal fodder when there is not enough live pasture to graze animals on, when grazing is not feasible due to weather or when an animal is unable to access a pasture. Hay is also used when a pasture is too lush or nutrient rich for the well being of livestock.
Mixtures of grasses such as ryegrass, timothy, brome, fescue, Bermuda grass, and orchard grass are commonly used for hay. However, hay may also include legumes, such as alfalfa and clovers.
Because the leaf and seed of plants naturally contain more nutritional value than the stems, farmers typically harvest hay when the seeds are not quite ripe and the leaf is at its largest size. Once cut in the field, the material is left to dry until the majority of the moisture is removed while still ensuring that the material is dense enough to be processed by machinery and stored in bales.
Hay is very sensitive to weather conditions. When too dry, hay production and its nutritional value are diminished. When it's too wet out, the hay can easily rot, mold or spoil in the field before there is time for it to be baled, potentially allowing for toxins to form in the hay, which could make the animals sick.
After harvest, hay should be stored in a way that protects it from moisture as any mold or spoilage reduces the nutritional value and may cause illness.
Common Types of hay
There are many different types of hay that are available. The following are a few types that are typical for cattle, horse, goat, sheep and other grazing fodder. It's important to understand the different types of feed and their nutritional value and impact on your livestock health, growth and yield.
Alfalfa is a great source of high quality protein. It is a great choice for lactating cows that need high amounts of digestible protein and energy. While Alfalfa is very palatable for most livestock, overfed livestock can become bloated easily due to the high amount of protein. This legume based hay has a crude protein content of 17-20%, 1.19-1.41% calcium and 0.98-1.13 mCal/lb digestible energy.
Oat hay is beneficial for a majority of livestock for several reasons and typically contain more calories per pound than grass hay. Oat hay is great for young livestock when cut when the oats are in bloom, but you can also feed stock cows oat hay when cut a little later. Oats are typically grown in cool temperate climates. Oat hay has a crude protein content of 15.6-16.3% and 0.32% calcium.
Orchard grass has a nutrient content with high fiber, protein and calorie content when compared to timothy. Unlike other hays, orchard grass hay's nutrient value is not sensitive to the time it needs to be cut. While orchard grass has high nutrient value, it falls short compared to alfalfa hay's nutrient density. Orchard grass has a crude protein content of 8-13%, 0.26% calcium.
Timothy is a grass hay mostly used for horses. It is a high energy, high fiber, and low protein feed, which makes it easy for animals to digest. Because of it's low protein levels, timothy is often used as a filler to calm appetites without adding excess calories. Timothy hay has a crude protein content of 7-11%, 0.38-0.51% calcium, and 0.82-0.94 mCal/lb digestible energy.
To fully understand the nutritional impact of the hay you are using you can do a hay analysis, which will highlight the specific amount of various nutrients that are found in the hay. Learn more about hay testing and hay analysis at https://extension.psu.edu/understanding-a-hay-analysis.
What is the weight and size of a bale of hay?
Hay is typically harvested using standard machines and balers. These result in common round and square bale sizes weighing from 40 lbs to over 2,000 lbs. A hay baling machine packs and binds hay in a specified dimension, however depending on the density of the hay the weight of the bales varies.
Each bale of hay has a moisture content that notably impacts its weight, making it difficult to produce standard or identical weight bales. The ideal moisture for hay is around 15%. If the hay has less than 10% the hay will be very dry and lacking nutrition. If it has more than 18% moisture then there is a risk of mold. To accurately measure the weight of a bale of hay it is best to use a weighing scale.
Making Hay: Packaging bales
Bales are packed in two forms, round or rectangular and both have their pros and cons to feeding livestock.
- Easy to move, but can be labor intensive to feed to animals
- Easy to stack, store and transport
- If not stored correctly in a hayrick, can easily spoil
- Easy to feed to animals
- Hard to store and stack
- Harder to transport
- Because it is baled in a compressed manner, it's less prone to spoilage
Estimating the bale of hay weight by dimension:
The following table provides information about how much a bale of hay typically weighs according to its dimension and size.
Size Dimension (L x H x W) Weight
2 string bale 36” x 19” x 16”40 - 75 lbs.
3 string bale 44“ x 22” x 15”100 - 140 lbs.
Half ton 6 ft x 4 ft x 3 ft 1000 lbs.
1 Ton 8 ft x 4 ft x 4 ft 2000 lbs.
Size Dimension (Width x Height) Weight
Small 4 ft x 4 ft 400 - 600 lbs.
Medium5 ft x 4.5 ft 720 - 950 lbs.
Large 5 ft x 6 ft 1270 - 1700 lbs.
How to estimate your hay needs and costs
Depending on the type, quality, location, size of the bales, you should expect to pay something between $30 and $300 per ton of hay. Square bales, on average, cost between $3 and $10 per bale, while round bales range from $75 to $90 each ton. Alfalfa grade bales cost around $140 or more per ton, while grass bales range from $125 to $150 per ton.
Because of the variation of prices for hay based on location, type and season it's best to contact a local feed store or grower to get an accurate estimate.
If you want to estimate your hay consumption and costs, you need to know on average how much your livestock eat each day.
When estimating hay usage we need to consider a few key factors:
1. The hay quality and moisture content
2. The daily % of body weight the animal consumes
3. The amount of hay wastage that is likely to occur.
How much hay might one cow consume?
Cows will typically consume about 2% of their body weight. Using an example 1200 pound pregnant cow, with good quality grass hay (~8% crude protein) we can estimate hay consumption of about 26 lbs per day - based on 92% dry matter (grass hays often have between 7-10% moisture content).
Hay wastage is difficult to estimate, but generally it is between 5% and 20%. For this example, let's assume 15% hay wastage or an extra 4 lbs/day/cow.
This means that about 30 lbs of hay must be fed to each cow each day that hay is the primary feed source.
To figure out how much hay your cattle is likely to consume we can use the following formula:
Lbs of hay needed = number of cows x days on hay x lbs/day
Tons of hay needed = Lbs of hay/2000
Total cost of Hay = Tons of hay x cost/ton
Using our example with an estimated cost of $250/ton of hay for 10 cows for 90 days we come to:
Lbs of hay needed: 10 x 90 x 30 = 27,000 lbs
Tons of hay needed: 27,000 lbs/2000 = 13.5 tons
Total cost of Hay: 13.5 tons x $250 = $3,375
As you see it can be challenging but not impossible to figure out how much hay you will need to store for the winter. We hope this article will help give you the information you need to estimate weights of bales of hay, keep enough hay on hand and produce healthy and happy livestock.