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Hay tips for first-time farmers

I often receive emails from people who are just starting out on a farm, or planning to start 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.  Winter is a common time for people to sell livestock for cheap - because they can't afford to provide hay. Before taking home a bargain, figure out how much it's going to cost to feed it. (Winter is not the best time to buy hay for the best prices.)

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 who baled it. Or, later, 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 slow cooker, 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). 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.

Also, some animals are more wasteful than other animals.  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 own livestock. To avoid waste, use feeders. Don't set hay directly on the ground.

Another variable, of course, is quality of the hay. 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. 

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 then, 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 were 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 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.  And that's just for the cows, not counting the round bales I'd need for my other animals.

 This winter, I went with square bales for everyone. Planning 100 bales per large animal, that meant 200 square bales for my two cows. I have two horses - 200 square bales for the two horses. That's 400 square bales for just four animals. I packed in another 300 square bales for the rest of my animals.

While the hay-for-winter equation has many variables, 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 smaller animals) to at least get a finger hold on what you 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. When I look at a cow or a horse, I see $250 stamped on its 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! 

If you can bale your own hay, of course, 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, another cost.

 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.

Writer Suzanne McMinn lives in Roane County, where she writes every day in her blog, Chickens in the Road, at


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