Avoid costly hay

Even at the best of times, hay is a very expensive commodity and has a huge impact on the profitability of livestock enterprises.

Livestock farmers in the Highveld are currently experiencing a very costly winter. The summer drought has resulted in a greater demand for hay. This, of course, has increased its market value. Even at the best of times, hay is a very expensive commodity. The amount of hay fed has a huge impact on the profitability of livestock enterprises, especially in the case of beef production. Said more simply, hay is a potential profit robber of major proportions in the livestock industry.
Can anything be done to reduce the cost of hay? The answer is an emphatic “Yes!”

Cutting costs
The first and most significant cost cutter is to make or buy quality hay. One bale of nutrient-dense hay is easily worth three bales of nutrient-deficient hay in getting animals through winter. I’m not kidding. Let me show you how to do the sum. Consider the protein content of the hay. I can hear a few of my readers saying, “Why tell me what I already know?” But be patient, I’m getting there.

So you know, or should know, the protein content of the hay you made or bought. But you only know what the crude protein content is. What really counts is the amount of digestible protein. This is the protein the animal uses to stay alive and produce milk, beef, mutton and wool. There are no laboratories in South Africa that can analyse the digestible protein of a forage. The only way to find this out is to put an animal in a crate and measure all the crude protein that’s fed and then measure all that’s passed out in the dung and urine.

The portion that ‘remains’ behind is digestible protein. This is known as the ‘digestion trial’. Now I can hear you saying: “That’s a fat lot of good to me”. But once more, please be patient…

The formula
Dr Banie van Niekerk, who headed up Voermol before his untimely death, made a study of numerous hay digestion trials and came up with a formula to convert crude protein (CP) to digestible protein (DP). It’s not 100% reliable, but for farming it’s a very useful calculation – one that will motivate you to strive for higher quality hay. The formula, which I have simplified, is: DP = CP x 0,9 – 3.

For an easy example, let’s calculate the DP of a hay with a CP of 10%. Multiply 10 by 0,9, subtract three and you get 6% DP.
Just recently I was on a farm in the Vrede area in the Free State, where the farmer was feeding his beef weaners Eragrostis hay he’d made on the farm. “Have you had the hay analysed?” I enquired, knowing that the chance that it had been was about one in a hundred!

To put matters right I had a sample analysed. It turned out to be the worst Eragrostis sample I’ve ever taken. The CP was a mere 3,75, which converts to a DP of 0,37%. This makes me wonder if the formula applies to such poor quality hay! Nevertheless, in order to make my point on the cost of hay I’m going to assume it’s a fair estimate of the DP content. In terms of nutrient density, the best forage sample I’ve taken came from a lucerne land in the Cape. This sample not only had a CP of 26% but had adequate-to-excellent levels of all the important macro- and micronutrient elements.

The DP was 20,4% When it comes to digestible protein, the value of lucerne hay is apparently 54 times greater than Eragrostis hay. (Divide 20,4% by 0,375%) Said in another way, one bale of Cape lucerne hay will supply the same amount of DP as 54 bales of the Vrede Eragrostis hay! I’ve dealt with extremes here, but the point is – you can get through this winter far more cheaply by using good quality hay.

John Fair is a leading expert on pastures and founder and head of the SA Biofarm Institute in Harrismith. Contact John on 058 622 3585 or at [email protected]. Please state ‘Biological farming’ in the subject line of your email.