I often receive emails from people who are just starting out on a farm, or planning to start out on a farm soon. One of the most common questions is about hay for winter–how to plan it, how to know how much is required, how to know how many animals they can afford to keep. It’s a truly important question. If you can’t feed your animal through the winter, you shouldn’t have that animal. And you really need to know before you bring the animal home.
Before getting into the basic equation of x bales of hay per x number of animals, let me point out the variable of the bale itself. Not all bales of hay, be they round or square, are created equal. Your average square bale weighs between 50 and 75 pounds. Some are lighter, some are heavier. It depends on the size of the baler, the grass being baled, and other factors, and every bale is slightly unique even from the same baler. Round bales have an even wider range. Your average round bale could weigh anywhere from 400 to 800 pounds. Round bales can be baled smaller or larger, lighter or heavier.
How do you know how much a round bale weighs without weighing it? You can ask the person baling it. Or you can watch your animals eat it, account for waste, and make a good estimate based on how long it lasts. Of course, you can only test that after you’ve bought it. It’s a good idea to ask for recommendations from farmer friends and neighbors when choosing a hay man. If they’ve used his hay, they’ll be able to give you a good estimate of his round bale weight.
If your round bales aren’t covered, or your square bales aren’t fed in a feeder, you have to include waste in your planning. The outer layer of a round bale is exposed to weather (or the ground). Animals eat a round bale from the center out, and the outer layer will be left behind when they’re finished eating the good stuff. With a square bale, if it’s set directly on the ground, the animals will eat it from the outside in and down, leaving the bottom of the bale wasted by the time they finish tromping on it and spreading it around. If round bales are covered until needed, and square bales are fed in a feeder, there is less waste and you can count on more useable breakfast, lunch, and dinner per bale.
Round bales are nice–they’re fix-it-and-forget-it, like putting supper in a crock pot, and they’re usually more economical. However, you either must have them delivered exactly where you want them, or be prepared with the equipment to move them (with a tractor). I don’t want to move round bales, so I don’t intend to use any this winter. Square bales are moveable by almost anybody. You can carry them by hand, roll them end over end, or load them into a lawn cart to get them where they’re going.
With all of the above in mind, the following equation is based on the average square bale or the average round bale. Adjust accordingly for your bales, or if you’re not in the farming business yet and just dreaming, use it as a basic guide for planning, prepared to adjust later based on the bales available in your area.
Per day, you should plan: One square bale per large animal (horse, cow), or one square bale per approximately half-dozen small animals (sheep, goats). Extrapolate the calculation to round bales. (See round bale notes below for my extrapolation with my round bales.)
Per winter, plan at least 100 days feeding hay (which, of course, varies per your area and even per winter in the same area, but 100 is a good rule of thumb). If you have pasture, you can expect that on nice days, your animals may still find grass to eat, supplementing from nature. If you don’t have pasture, plan on more hay. The more pasture you have per animal, the less hay you will need overall as you can leave your animals on pasture longer before starting in on full-time hay.
Some animals are more wasteful than other animals, by the way. In my experience with my animals, sheep are the most wasteful hay eaters–this may vary and other people may find differently, but it’s what I’ve found with my animals. To avoid waste, get feeders! Don’t set hay directly on the ground. All of my animals will be fed hay this winter in feeders.
Another variable, of course, is quality of the hay–poor, average, high. A bale of hay is only as good as the meadow from which it’s cut. If you’re uncertain of how to judge quality, before purchasing hundreds of bales of hay, buy one and take it to an experienced farmer for an assessment. The hay I buy is of average quality. When buying hay for the first time from a farmer, also pay attention to the weight in relation to the size of the bale. You can’t pick up a round bale, but you can pick up a square bale. If it feels lighter than it should, the farmer may be “baling light” and selling underweight bales–which is only fair if the price is also underweight. (Another clue is loose strings.) Most people won’t try to cheat you, but there are always a few bad apples. The price of the bale should be fair in relation to both the weight of the bale and the going rate for an average bale in your area. Find a hay man you can trust and be his favorite customer.
Last winter, with the round bales I had, I found that my two cows would go through a round bale about every five days, so the round bale was worth about 10 square bales (after accounting for the excess waste because the round bales weren’t covered–without so much waste, each round bale would have been worth more). If I was buying the same size round bales for this winter for the cows (and not covering them), I would plan on at least 18 round bales to get me through the worst of winter, considering that I will leave them on pasture into December and have them back on it (at least partially) by late March. (Unless it’s an extremely harsh winter. You never know what your winter is going to be.) And I would have some extra square bales stashed in case I ran out. I’d have to buy the same number of round bales for the two horses, the same number for the goats, and the same number for the sheep and donkeys, which would mean at least 70 round bales total (if they were the exact same size round bales I used last year).
However, I’m planning on square bales for everyone. Planning 100 bales per large animal, that means 200 square bales for my two cows. I have two horses–200 square bales for the two horses. That’s 400 square bales so far! On to the goats and sheep. 100 square bales for my little herd of little goats. I’m down to two sheep. Normally, for four or five sheep, I would plan 100 square bales. For my two sheep, I’ll still plan 100 square bales–but I’ll throw in Jack and Poky to round out the estimate. That means as a minimum, I need 600 square bales in my barn. Because I’m using feeders this year and will have less waste, I would probably be fine at 600, but I’m planning to pack in 700. It never hurts to have a little extra. Winter is unpredictable. Right now, I have just over 300 square bales, so I’m close to halfway. I wanted to finish early, but we had a run of rainy weather, preventing me from getting trucks to the barn. I don’t like to drive loaded trucks into my barnyard when it’s wet. At this point, we’re close to second-cutting time, so I’ll just wait for the second cutting and finish up then.
While the hay-for-winter equation has many variables–waste, size/weight of bales, weather, available pasture, etc–you can always start with the rule of thumb (100 square bales per winter per large animal or 100 square bales per winter per upwards of half-dozen small animals) to at least get a fingerhold on what you would need to provide when planning to bring animals on to a farm. In deciding how many (and what size) animals you can afford to keep, take the rule-of-thumb number of bales and calculate it based on the cost of hay in your area. Hay price is another variable, and it varies widely. I buy square bales for $2.50/bale. (Hay is quite affordable in West Virginia. It’s much more expensive in many areas.) When I look at a cow or a horse, I see $250 stamped on their forehead because that’s what it will cost me to provide them 100 bales for the winter. Take the cost of a bale of hay in your area, multiply it by 100, and virtually stamp it on the forehead of a cow or horse you are considering purchasing. If you can’t provide the hay that animal needs for the winter, step! away! from! that! animal! This is why most people wouldn’t allow a cow like Beulah Petunia to “retire” on their farm. I just put the flower back on her head and it hides the $250.
I defy you to see the $250 on her head. She’s special.
If you can bale your own hay, you’ll save money–after you buy the equipment. You’ll either have to run it yourself or hire someone to bale your hay for you (which is another cost).
In the winter, I also provide more feed/grain to my animals than I do in spring, summer, and fall, so include that in your overall winter costs, too. To find out how much feed costs in your area, go to your local feed store. This post is about hay, so I won’t go into a feed equation, which has even more variables than hay and is subjective to some extent. Some people don’t provide feed at all. I’ve had dairy farmers nearly keel over when I tell them how much I feed a cow in milk, so I think I’m on the high end when it comes to providing feed. I won’t embarrass myself by telling you how much I feed them, but I’ll just say that I had to make Adam re-do the feed tray in my new milking parlor because the first one he made was too small. After I explained how much I feed a milk cow, he picked himself back up off the ground and went back to make me a bigger tray. Which still wasn’t big enough, but we compromised on the conclusion that I could always refill it. And after he got done teasing me about it, he said, “I’d rather hear you feed your cow too much than not enough.”
(Note: Way overfeeding an animal is harmful. I’m not that bad. But I do err on the side of more than less, especially when it comes to a cow in milk. I feel the same way about hay. I would rather have 50 bales left over in the barn than run out.)
I’ve been there/done that on a farm without enough pasture. I’ve been there/done that without enough money to buy enough hay. Plan wisely before bringing animals onto your farm. We always fed our animals first at Stringtown Rising, but it certainly created a lot of financial havoc because we had more animals than we had resources (pasture or money) to comfortably support. No matter what your financial position, your animals must be fed first before paying for anything else. Domesticated livestock is entirely dependent on us to provide for them, be it pasture or hay, and if you can’t feed them, you should not have them. (This is why you often find cows and horses available at bargain prices in late fall.) Underfeeding livestock in winter is an unfortunately common practice. Buying hay for winter is a sacrifice, always, in trade for the rewards of keeping livestock. We owe it to them as their stewards to be practical and realistic with ourselves in choosing whether we can afford to keep them.
I’ve been buying hay from the same guy for three years, so I’m experienced with using his hay and know that it falls closely to the rule of thumb. If all other means of measurement fail for you, watch your animals. They will tell you. If their condition goes down, if they’re losing weight and there’s no other reason, feed them more.
Despite all the variables, I hope this helps if you’re planning a farm. Take the “hay rule of thumb” and go from there to fill in your own unique specifics in your area. Good luck–and don’t bring home anything you can’t feed!