Due to the current beef-market situation, many producers are evaluating ways to cut costs without negatively impacting production.

Feeding cows comprises the largest percentage of annual production costs. Consequently, establishing cheaper ways to feed the herd may be a determining factor between breaking even and making a profit.

In South Dakota State University extension’s iGrow newsletter, Adele Harty, cow/calf field specialist, recently shared some factors to evaluate if more hay needs to be purchased to get through the winter. In this scenario, it’s possible that low-quality forage might make some sense as a cheaper alternative.

First, determine the cost per ton of total digestible nutrients (TDN) in the forage and compare the price to other feeds of differing quality. Ensure the forage is cheaper on a ton of TDN basis, otherwise you may spend more money than intended.

For example, consider a low-quality hay consisting of 50 percent TDN and 88 percent dry matter (DM) that can be purchased for $65 per ton. Compare this to alfalfa/grass hay with 60 percent TDN and 88 percent DM for $125 per ton.

On a TDN basis, the low-quality hay costs $148 per ton of TDN and the alfalfa/grass hay costs $237 per ton of TDN. The low-quality hay would provide a potential savings of $89 per ton of TDN. However, if crude protein (CP) is deficient in the low-quality hay, the savings may need to be used to provide a protein supplement.

The low-quality hay will benefit from some sort of processing, whether through a bale processor or tub grinder. Further, the low-quality forage may require a protein supplement to ensure best utilization by the cattle. Assuming the low-quality hay is 5.5 percent crude protein and the cows require 8 percent crude protein in their diet, a protein supplement is necessary.

For example, consider a 30 percent CP supplement and assume a 1,300-pound cow consumes 26 pounds of DM of low-quality forage. To meet the cow’s CP requirements, feed 3 pounds (DM) of a 30 percent CP supplement. For the alfalfa/grass hay, the cow will consume about 29 pounds of DM due to greater forage quality.

As earlier mentioned, the low-quality hay is $65 per ton and tub grinding will add about $4 per ton. So the cost per head per day is $1.02. If a supplement is added, it costs $175 per ton, adding 29 cents per head per day. This makes for a total feed cost per day of $1.31. If the alfalfa/grass hay is fed, the cost per head per day will be $2.06. Neither of the rations figured waste.

On a ranch scale perspective, if you are wintering 250 head of cows for four months using one of the two rations, the low-quality hay-based feeding program will cost $22,500 less. This will save about $90 per head.

When calculating this, convert everything to DM to be compared on a similar basis.