Country Living Series

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hay question

A reader had a question on my post Bringing in the Hay regarding feeding cattle. I started to answer but my reply became so long I decided to make it a separate blog post.

Here is the reader's question:

We are fixing to get cattle for the first time and are debating on how best to feed them. I would like, in an ideal world, to 100% grass feed them, but having only a small pasture (1.5 acres) will make that difficult. Thankfully my parents have a small hay field so we are getting a good deal on hay, but my dad is insistent that we will have to feed grain, too.

How do you feed your cattle, particularly in winter?

My reply:

We feed exclusively 100% grass hay during all times of the year the animals can’t get enough to eat by grazing. Keep in mind if you only have a 1.5 acre pasture (and depending on how many animals you’re getting), it will get eaten down in a fairly short period of time (even during the lushest summer months) and you’ll have to supplement their feed with hay the rest of the year. I sympathize because when we lived in Oregon, our pasture was only about 2.5 acres, so we had to feed almost year-round.

Keep an eye on your pasturage. Some neglectful livestock owners have the extraordinary notion that just because their animals are in a field, they are getting enough to eat. But if the field is eaten down to bare dirt, the animals could be starving. Be vigilant and attentive to the needs of your animals. Besides the cruelty factor, hungry cows won’t give much milk.

For winter feeding (or for feeding when the pasture isn't providing enough food), a rough rule of thumb is about 3% of body weight per day in hay. For a thousand-pound cow, this translates to 30 lbs. of hay per day, usually split between two feedings. Some people free-feed, which is fine; but you’ll go through a lot more hay that way because they tend to lay down on it, and/or defecate/urinate on it.

“Hay” is a generic term referring to dried plant material, either grasses, legumes, or a combination. Depending on your climate, terrain, rainfall, and other factors, you may have to supplement year-round.

Not all hay is created equal. Alfalfa is a high-protein high-quality feed, but it’s also very expensive and a pure alfalfa diet may be too rich. Cheatgrass is a low-quality low-nutritional forage that, at least in our case, our cows loathe. In our area we also get a lot of St. John’s wort and yellow hawkweed, both of which are nasty and non-nutritious for cattle.

I don’t know what kind of grass is in your father’s hayfield, but you’ll need to be vigilant that it’s of decent quality, not garbage.

Grass hay such as a timothy/brome mix, or oat hay, are excellent general choices for livestock. These are usually among the more affordable feeds as well. Because these hays are less rich in protein, a small grain supplement won’t hurt your animals, but it’s not necessary either.

Grain is used to “finish” beef cattle (fatten them up before slaughter). It’s also used to supplement the feed of high-producing dairy cattle whose bodies must go into hyperdrive to supply milk under commercial dairy conditions. But for a small homestead, grain is not necessary except for the occasional “bribe” for training or cooperation (sort of like bribing your toddler with an M&M when they use the potty chair).

Grain is high-protein and cattle love it; but let’s face facts, it’s not what they were bred to eat. Kids love cookies, but they aren’t “bred” to live on cookies to the exclusion of healthier foods. Similarly, cows love grain but were bred to live on grass.

So reserve grain as a treat, a training aid, and perhaps as a nutritional boost for a lactating animal; but don’t get caught up in the notion that livestock MUST have grain. We’ve raised cows for years with nary a grain in sight.

Make sure your grain is INACCESSIBLE to your livestock at all times, except when you're feeding small amounts. We have some friends who tragically lost a beloved dairy animal because she broke into the grain storage and gorged. She had to be put down and it was sad loss to these folks.

Your livestock should also have access to minerals, either with a mineral block or with loose mineral salts.

And needless to say, water! Your animals must always have fresh water available.


  1. Thanks for the reply, Patrice! I truly appreciate it!

    To give you a full picture of my situation: my dad is a vet and also an official with the USDA, so you can imagine some of the opinions that he might have. My husband and I manage our homestead as organically as possible We are providing the infrastructure and day to day care of our not-yet-purchased pair of steers; my parents are providing the hay and the veterinary care. We are splitting costs and the meat 50/50. The hay is brome and it is high quality stuff. My dad is very particular and cuts it when the protein is at its highest point.

    My dad's concern was that the steers wouldn't gain weight over our harsh winter unless they also were fed grain. He said they might just maintain their weight on an all hay diet. I will share what you said and see if I can persuade him my way. It is hard being a complete newbie to large livestock butting up against the voice of experience.

    1. Your dad is right to an extent. Young steers will gain weight over the winter (ours do) since they're still growing, but they won't gain AS MUCH weight, nor gain it AS FAST, as if they were being fed grain. So it depends on what you want. A natural diet of grass hay results in slower growth and cattle that aren't as fat. But you're not a commercial enterprise and don't have to "hurry" your steers as much as the commercial growers need to do, so you can be more vigilant about an organic lifestyle.

      Yes, brome is an excellent grass hay. They'll do great on it.

      - Patrice

  2. Oats.. grain.. is very good to feed in the cold of winter (-15). It helps them convert the hay better and stay warm.
    Rancher from Canada.

  3. The only way to know if your forage or "grass hay" is good quality is to take a sample and get it to tested. Just because your field does not look like "garbage" or is pretty and green and everything is growing nicely or whatever means NOTHING. Send your forage to get tested so you know how much protein etc. you are actually feeding your cattle.

  4. So how much pasture would be required for one average milch cow? Don't have room for a whole herd, but would like some milk and cheese on a regular basis.

  5. We only fed grain to put on extra fat during the last couple of months before slaughter. I think it tastes much better than 100% grass fed, but it is purely a personal preference. They definitely didn't NEED it.

  6. I think you answered your own problem. Harsh winters. That tells me that grass hay will not give the cattle enough feed to stay healthy and growing. A pan of grain will not break the bank.

    Damon Locke

  7. Ok, getting feet slightly damp Patrice, what if I had one jersey cow just for milk? If you only had Matilda, would you do grain and grass?
    Kelly in K'ville, NC

  8. Cows that only eat grass give meat that tastes like grass. Definitely need a bit of grain every day.

  9. We do a little of both for our Jersey cow, Betsy. Since we sharemilk(we let the calf have free access to Betsy from 5am to about 4pm every day) with Betsy's calf(Rose), we don't get lots of milk, but we have enough for us, in-laws, out-laws, and trade 3-4 gallons each week. However, we don't have enough to start making cheese, but trading some each week offsets the cost of hay.

    At milking time, Betsy gets 2 flakes of alfalfa hay + 1 coffee can of fermented (half oats/half sweetfeed). In the evening, she gets 1 or 2 flakes of bermuda/koisha hay. The rest of the day Betsy, her calf, and a horse share a 2 acre pasture.

    We have tried both straight grass/hay diet, and a diet with grain. There is a noticable drop in milk production when doing grassfed. We added the grain to her diet because we weren't getting enough milk without it.

    BTW, economics is not a reason to get a dairy cow. If you value sleeping in, vacations, weekend getaways, or time, don't get one. If you value your family's health above the other things mentioned, then you MAY be ready for a dairy cow. Even the big dairy's cant make a profit selling milk at todays prices(think govt subsidy).

    So, long answer short, it depends. Are you going to keep the calves? Are you going to sharemilk or bottle feed? How much milk do you need? What kind and how much pasture is available? Can you afford or bale enough hay yourself to get you through the winter? There's a lot of variables to consider.


  10. 1.5 acre isn't enough for a dairy goat, much less a full sized bovine.

    Not a bovine you expect to get milk or meat from.