Dealing With High Hay Prices
This article first appeared in Indiana Sheep Tales in 1997, Vol. 30:3.

by Mike Neary
Extension Sheep Specialist
Purdue University

Hay prices for the winter of 1996/1997 were two to three times more expensive than most years. It appears that many areas of the eastern cornbelt will again have very high hay prices in 1997/1998. It has been suggested by some that work closely in the forages area that hay prices could reach $200 to $250 per ton for the coming winter.

Hay prices this high certainly are a major financial consideration for sheep producers, whether they have large commercial flocks or just a handful of sheep as a part-time enterprise. Even if producers raise their own hay and their cost of production is well below the market value, if they feed this homegrown hay to sheep, they will be losing a substantial opportunity to sell this hay at a high price.

Unless one can find hay that is reasonable in price, the only option in reducing hay cost is to feed less hay. Strategies to achieve this goal will be discussed in the remainder of this article.

Methods to reduce hay usage

1) Have hay tested for nutritional value

Whether purchased or homegrown, it will be very important this year to get a laboratory analysis of a representative sample of hays. Not only is hay expected to be in short supply, it is likely to be quite variable in quality. Knowing the nutritional value of hays will allow the most effective utilization in a sheep nutrition program.

2) Match quality of forage to nutrient needs of sheep

The nutrient needs of the ewe flock change as the level of production changes. Ewes in a maintenance stage or in early pregnancy have different requirements than those in late gestation or in lactation. Thus, higher amounts of better quality hay can be fed when needed, or lower amount or lower quality hay can be fed when appropriate. This can save amounts of total hay needed, total cost of hay or both.

3) Calculate how much hay will be needed

To do this, one needs to know the average weight of the ewes in the flock and the length of time they will need to be fed hay. Let’s assume that we have ewes that weigh 175 pounds, they will be fed hay for six months, they are bred when they come into a hay feeding situation, they will be in a late gestation phase for 40 days and they will be lactating for 60 days. This leaves 80 days for early pregnancy and the maintenance period after weaning until pasturing. For simplicity sake we have used the whole 80 days as early gestation, this may not be the case in individual situations. The following is an example on how to calculate the hay needs for an individual ewe, specific calculations can be made for your situation.

Stage Daily amt Days Pounds needed
Early preg 3.75 80 300
Late gest 4.25 40 170
Lactation 5.00 60 300

Total pounds of hay needed per ewe =


So, for this specific example an individual ewe needs a little over a third of a ton of hay for the winter. Certainly, needs would change for this example depending on ewe weight, length of the feeding period, and when ewes are lambed. Nevertheless, hays needs can and should be calculated so that strategies can be developed to reduce costs.

4) Extend the grazing season

If the grazing season can be extended later in the fall or ewes can be grazed earlier in the spring, significant hay savings can be realized. For example purposes, assume that either crop residues or stockpiled pasture is available for use in late fall or early winter. If 30 to 45 days of use can be obtained, then one can reduce hay needs by 100 to 159 pounds per ewe for the winter. Recent research at Purdue University has shown this to be possible without ewe productivity decreasing. This potential decrease in hay usage, based on projected 1997/1998 hay prices, can save producers $12 to $18 per ewe in hay costs.

5) Limit access to big bales

Large round bales of hay are great labor savers for sheep operations. However, it has been documented through research and practical experience that sheep will eat more hay than they need if given unlimited access. Consider every other day access or access to bales for a shorter time period each day during maintenance or early pregnancy to stretch our supplies of hay. Ewes will need enough physical space at the bales if either of these strategies are used. Also, it will take about three to four hours daily for ewes to consume adequate amounts of hay, depending on the hay quality.

6) Cull and sort ewes

Cull non-productive, problem ewes before overwintering to decrease hay needs. Also, sort ewes by age, body condition, when they are due to lamb, etc., if space and facilities permit. Ewes that need a bit more feeding can then receive it without overfeeding the majority of the flock.

7) Consider forage alternatives

Silage is an excellent feedstuff for sheep and can replace most of, or all, of hay needs. Usually, silage is a more economical source of energy than hays. Of course, to feed silage adequate handling, feeding and storage equipment and facilities are needed. To justify the added expense of equipment needs, there needs to be adequate numbers of livestock and a long term commitment to the animal enterprises.

8) Consider ration alternatives

Forage is usually used as an energy source for sheep. Normally, it should be an economical source of energy. However, if hay prices reach $200-$250 per ton it loses any economic advantage. This year may be a year when grain can be substituted for hay in the total diet. The National Research Council in the publication entitled Nutrient Requirements For Sheep make some recommendations for substituting grain for hay in sheep diets. The recommendations are to feed three parts hay to one part grain at a level equal to 75% of an all hay diet. For example, if a ewe is consuming 3.75 lbs. of hay during early pregnancy (first 2/3), then one could calculate an alternative ration as follows:

    3.75 lbs. all hay diet x 75% = 2.8 lbs. of hay and grain

    2.8 lbs of diet x 75% = 2.1 lbs of diet is hay

    2.8 lbs of diet x 25% = .7 lbs of diet is corn

This balances only for energy content of a diet. It is important to remember that corn is a poor source of calcium and is usually lower in protein content than most average quality hays. Thus, rations may need balancing for these two nutrients. Also, most ewes should receive a minimum of two pounds daily of some type of hay or roughage to prevent wood picking and to add bulk to the diet. However, from the above example, a ewe in early pregnancy would require 132 lbs. less hay than our previous calculations.

A grade-off to substituting grain for hay in a diet for ewes is that increased management is required. Ewes will need fed daily, bunk space will be needed, the potential for acidosis or other metabolic problems are increased, and as mentioned earlier the diet may need adjusting to ensure adequate levels of other nutrients. If you are considering substituting grain for hay in a diet and would like some assistance in balancing your diets, contact your State Sheep Specialist or County Extension Educator.

9) Obtain hay early

Probably the most important tip is to buy all or most of your hay needs as soon as possible. If you wait until the snow is flying the price of hay will most likely be flying upward also.