Skip to main content


Open Main MenuClose Main Menu

Reducing Winter Feeding Costs

During periods of reduced forage growth (typically winter), livestock must have an alternative source of feed. However, producers spend an extraordinary amount of money on providing these alternative feeds. Analysis of data from the Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA, Fig. 1) survey indicates that there is wide variation in input costs associated with livestock production systems. Regardless of whether a producer falls into the low-, mid-, or high-cost category, feed costs account for approximately 26 percent of the cost of production. Feed costs, as demonstrated by the SPA data, reflect the second highest annual cost associated with cattle ownership, and second only to the original purchase price of the cattle. The use of supplemental feed (hay or concentrate) may be beneficial to livestock, especially for growing animals, animals in the latter stages of gestation, lactating animals, or during periods of reduced forage growth (i.e., drought, winter). Most producers could substantially reduce their winter feed costs by carefully considering their forage production management practices. Reducing input costs associated with hay production and feeding (regardless of whether the hay is produced on-farm or purchased off-farm) or concentrate-type feeds, can help to improve the profitability of livestock production systems. This publication discusses management practices that can reduce the costs associated with livestock winter feeding programs.


Standardized Performance Analysis financial summary.


Figure 1. Standardized Performance Analysis (SPA) financial summary ($/cow). McGrann and Walter, 1995.


Improving Hay Utilization


Forage Production

One of the easiest methods to reduce the need for supplemental feed is to produce hay of higher nutritive value. Most hay is produced from introduced-forage pastures and the comments here will be specific to forage production of bermudagrass, Old World bluestems, tall fescue, and other commonly used introduced species. Hay produced from rangelands is not normally fertilized; however, nutritive value of traditional native grass hay can be improved by harvesting at the appropriate stage of maturity.


Forage nutritive value relates to those constituents in forages that can be determined by laboratory analysis, such as the crude protein content and digestibility. There are two aspects of forage production under direct control of the manager that govern production of hay that is high in nutritive value: proper soil fertility and the stage of maturity of the forage when harvested.


Nitrogen is second only to moisture in relative importance regarding dry matter production. There is a high positive correlation between fertilizer nitrogen and crude protein; as nitrogen rate increases, so does forage crude protein content. Table 1 illustrates the typical response of bermudagrass to increasing rates of nitrogen fertilizer. Note that other forage grasses will also respond in a similar fashion, but at somewhat reduced yields. It is also important to note that if growing or lactating animals are fed during the winter, high-crude protein hay can reduce the requirement for protein supplements.


Table 1 demonstrates the importance of nitrogen fertilizer regarding both crude protein and dry matter production. Depending on the level of crude protein required (mature animals or growing animals) and the dry matter needed for winter feeding, a producer can decide in advance what level of nitrogen fertilizer will be necessary for the enterprise. Remember, without nitrogen fertilizer, forage nutritive value and dry matter production will be reduced. Nitrogen is generally a good investment in the livestock production system because of a good return on every dollar of nitrogen invested.


For nitrogen fertilizer to be most effective, other soil nutrients, such as phosphorus and potassium, must be adequate and the soil pH must be appropriate for the forage species produced. For additional information on estimating livestock demand, fertilizer requirements, and forage production, see Extension publication PSS-2584, “Forage Budgeting Guidelines.” For additional information on forage production practices, see Extension publications PSS-2584, ” Bermudagrass for Grazing and Hay”, PSS-2559, “Tall Fescue in Oklahoma”, and PSS-2585,” Forage Legumes for Oklahoma.”


The other critical element of good hay production is to harvest the forage at the appropriate stage of maturity. With increasing maturity, there is a corresponding increase in cell wall components that are less digestible than cell contents. There is also an increase in lignin, which is an indigestible forage component. Increased cell wall and lignin are important in helping forages maintain their leaves and stems in an upright manner. Cell wall and lignin have a negative effect on forage nutritive value. Figure 2 demonstrates in a conceptual manner the typical forage response to increasing maturity. Although nutritive value of legumes also declines with increasing maturity, the effect is not as dramatic as with grasses.


Table 1. Bermudagrass dry matter (DM) yield and crude protein (CP) content as influenced by cultivar and nitrogen application rate. Taliaferro et al.,1995.

Variety N rate
Haskell, OK      
Midland 40 5.71 12.24
  80 6.56 11.1
  160 8.21 13.07
  320 8.99 14.6
Hardie 40 7.28 11.87
  80 7.73 11.36
  160 8.85 12.62
  320 9.94 13.9
Tifton 44 40 6.38 11.92
  80 6.75 11.5
  160 8.73 12.59
  320 9.91 13.7
Stillwater, OK      
Midland 40 3.72 8.67
  80 4.69 9.4
  160 5.89 10.54
  320 7.31 12.86
Hardie 40 4.15 8.83
  80 5.13 9.21
  160 5.67 10.62
  320 7.45 12.05
Tifton 44 40 3.72 10.23
  80 4.59 10.02
  160 5.25 11.42
  320 6.9 13.27


Effect of stage of maturity on forage yield and forage nutritive value.




Figure 2. Effect of stage of maturity on forage yield and forage nutritive value.




Because of the declining nature of forage nutritive value with time, it is important that forage be harvested while nutritive value is high. There must, however, be enough dry matter in the field to justify the cost of mowing and baling the forage. Data contained in Table 2 suggests various stages of growth for different forage species that will result in a good balance of dry matter production and forage nutritive value.


Table 2. Recommended growth stages to harvest and harvest intervals for various hay crops. Ball et al., 1996.

Plant Species Stage of harvest and/or interval
Alfalfa 15- to 1 8-inch height for first cutting, mow every 4 to 5 weeks or when 15 inches high
Orchardgrass, timothy, tall fescue Boot to early head stage for first cut, aftermath cuts at 4- to 6-week intervals.
Red, arrowleaf, or crimson clovers
Early bloom
Sericea Lespedeza 15- to 1 8-inch height
Oat, barley, wheat, rye Boot to early head stage
Soybean, cowpea Mid- to full-bloom and before bottom leaves begin to fall
Ladino or white clover Cut at correct stage for companion grass
Hybrid bermudagrass 15- to 18-inch height for first cutting, mow every 4 to 5 weeks or when 15 inches high
Birdsfoot trefoil Cut at correct stage for companion grass
Sudangrass, sorghum-sudan hybrids, pearlmillet 30- to 40-inch height

The producer has great control over both the quantity and nutritive value of forages used for conservation as hay. The amount of purchased feed for winter feeding programs can be reduced if care is taken to produce hay that has been fertilized adequately and harvested at the appropriate stage of maturity. These concepts apply equally to forage that is cut and ensiled.


Harvesting and Storage

Good management practices do not end with application of the correct level of nitrogen fertilizer and harvest at the appropriate stage of maturity. The most critical time in hay production is the period immediately following harvest and prior to baling. Most producers realize that forages used for hay should not be harvested when there is a good chance of rain. Much of the harvested dry matter and nutrients can be lost if rain falls on the harvested forage while field curing. Raindrop impact shatters leaves and rain leaches valuable nutrients from the forage tissue.


Field-cured hay should have a moisture content of approximately 15 to 20percent at baling. It is important to rapidly reduce the moisture content of hay to this moisture level since plant respiration will continue until the moisture content is approximately 40percent. Continued respiration uses highly digestible plant nutrients that are important for good animal performance. Properly cured hay is also essential to reduce the potential for spontaneous combustion of stored hay. High-moisture hay produces tremendous amounts of heat energy that can lead to a costly hay fire. High-moisture hay is also conducive to the formation of molds and fungi that can reduce the nutritive value of the hay or cause the formation of toxins as in the case of high-moisture sweetclover hay.


Hay should be properly stored to minimize dry matter loss and loss of stored nutrients. It is common knowledge that small square bales should be stored out of the weather. There seems to be the misconception that large round bales can be stored outside under virtually any condition and still provide hay of good nutritive value. Nothing could be further from the truth!


An experiment in Louisiana examined the effect of storage conditions of large round bales of ryegrass stored for seven months. The results are contained in Table 3.


Table 3. Effect of storage system on dry matter loss of ryegrass hay stored for seven months.

Storage System Dry matter
Losses Animal Befusal
Ground 28 22 50
Gravel 31 17 48
Tires 35 6 41
Rack 26 6 32
Rack with cover 12 2 14
Barn 2 1 3

Data from Oklahoma State University also indicate that improperly stored round bales can lose as much as 50percent of their dry matter. This results in the hay costing twice as much. Round bales should be stored to minimize exposure to the elements. Many producers believe that a good hay storage barn is the only building on the farm or ranch that will actually pay for itself. Based on the data indicating hay dry matter loss in the field, they may be right. For more information on proper storage of round bale hay, see Extension publication BAE-1716, “Round Bale Hay Storage.”


Hay Feeding

Hay should be fed using a manger or hay ring to decrease the amount of hay that is wasted. If a manger or hay ring is not used, livestock will render much of the hay useless by urinating, defecating, and bedding on the hay material. The result of the wasted material significantly increases the hay cost.


If possible, hay should be fed in the afternoon. Studies on hay feeding suggest that animal performance is better when animals are forced to spend the morning and early afternoon foraging on standing dormant forages and then receive hay. Animals that were fed hay in the morning generally spent most of their time loafing around the feeding area waiting on the next hay feeding time. 


Alternatives to Feeding Hay

Feeding hay during periods of reduced forage growth dates from at least 750 B.C. in Great Britain and even earlier for middle eastern countries using alfalfa hay. The use of hay can be critical to livestock survival during times of reduced forage production or during periods of snow cover. Although hay will probably never be completely eliminated from livestock production systems, many Oklahoma producers feed too much hay for too long a period of time. In fact, it is not unusual to see many producers feed hay for 5 to 6 months. This type of feeding program is expensive, especially when producers could be pasturing their livestock.


Stockpiled Forage

One alternative to feeding hay is the use of stockpiled forages. Stockpiling is the process of allowing forage to accumulate in the pasture for grazing at a later time. There are two distinct advantages to using stockpiled forage.


The first is that the producer is not out the expense of baling the forage, hauling the hay to the barn or other storage location, and then hauling the hay back to the livestock at a later date. The savings that can be realized from using stockpiled forages relative to hay production and feeding can be substantial. Information derived from AGMACH$, a software program developed at OSU, indicates that production costs associated with harvesting and hauling hay can approach $35/acre (Table 4).


Table 4. Estimated production costs per acre for hay harvest and storage. Based on 200-acre harvest area.

Activity Cost/Acre
Mowing 5.78
Raking 4.88
Baling 13.82
Hauling 10.5
TOTAL 34.98

Thus, the use of stockpiled forage can significantly decrease costs of livestock winter-feeding programs. The other advantage is that the producer is not forced to feed hay during inclement weather.


The use of stockpiled forage is not new. Producers who use rangelands have utilized stockpiled forage for winter grazing for many years. In fact, hay is not generally fed on rangelands except during periods of heavy snow cover. What may be somewhat novel is that producers using introduced forages can also take advantage of stockpiled forage for winter grazing.


Tall fescue is an excellent choice as a stockpiled forage because it maintains nutritive value well as a standing forage. Data from OSU also indicates that well-fertilized bermudagrass maintains 8 to 9 percent crude protein through mid-February even in eastern Oklahoma. The same study indicated that energy would be the limiting factor for cattle grazing stockpiled bermudagrass and that some energy supplementation would be required, especially for young or thin animals.


It is important to control livestock grazing, especially stockpiled forages. Uncontrolled animals will attempt to select the best diet and trample unwanted forage. By using electric fencing or multiple paddocks, producers can enhance forage harvest efficiency and see that little forage is wasted.


Cool-Season Forages

Another alternative to the use of hay would be the use of cool-season forage pastures. Oklahoma producers have used wheat pasture for many years with good success. Animal performance is generally good to excellent, and the cost of fresh forage relative to animal gain is usually less than that of hay and supplements or supplements alone unless livestock are continuously stocked on pasture. Figure 3 illustrates the relative costs of various cool-season feeding programs.


Most winter feeding programs in Oklahoma and across the southern United States involve some sort of hay plus supplement strategy. The supplements are usually either range cubes or molasses-based liquid supplements or blocks. As can be seen from Figure 3, this is an expensive way to winter a cow. Equally expensive is continuous stocking of winter annuals, in this case a rye-ryegrass combination. The least expensive method illustrated in Figure 3 involves the use of a rye-ryegrass combination that is limit-grazed. In a limit graze system, livestock are allowed to graze fresh forage on a limited basis (2 hours/day, every other day, etc.) and spend the remainder of their time on dormant grass pasture where they may also receive hay, depending on the class of animal.


Estimated 5-month wintering cost per cow graph.


Figure 3. Estimated 5-month wintering cost per cow. Clary and Reeves, 1995.


This extends the quantity of forage produced in the cool-season pasture and requires less acreage to be established.


Producers who use bermudagrass can successfully overseed (sod-seed) cool-season annual combinations such as rye-ryegrass, wheat-ryegrass, and others into the dormant bermudagrass sod. The cereal grain is drilled into the short bermudagrass sod, and ryegrass is simply broadcast into the pasture with fertilizer as a topdressing to the cereal grain. Grazing can usually begin by mid to late November and continue until bermudagrass initiates growth the following spring. For additional information, refer to Extension publication F-2587, “Bermudagrass for Grazing or Hay.”


Probably the least expensive method of feeding cattle during the winter involves the use of a cool-season perennial forage grass. Once established, the only annual cost associated with a cool-season perennial grass is that of maintenance fertilizer and/or lime. Animal performance is comparable to that of animals grazing cool-season annuals, and the reduced input cost should enable producers to realize a better return from the production system. The cool-season perennial forage grass presently used in eastern Oklahoma is tall fescue. Cool-season perennial grasses for use in western Oklahoma are under evaluation by OSU. Early results indicate that several of the pubescent and intermediate wheatgrasses, certain smooth and meadow bromegrasses, and possibly orchardgrass may be adapted to the environmental conditions encountered in the southern Great Plains, including western Oklahoma.


Regardless of whether a cool-season annual or perennial forage grass is used for winter feeding, it is critical that producers pay close attention to basic production fundamentals. Soils where the cool-season forages will be established should be sampled and fertilizer applied according to soil test recommendations. Without proper fertility, the forage produced can become expensive.



Survey information indicates that one of the major costs involved in livestock operations is winter feeding. Most livestock producers have high feeding costs because of one or more of the following:

  1. Use of hay that is low in nutritive value
  2. Feeding hay for an extended period of time
  3. Too much dependence on concentrate feeds
  4. Too little use of forages (stockpiled or growing) for winter feeding


Hay that is low in nutritive value results from a poor fertility program, harvest at an advanced stage of maturity, and/or improper care during harvest and storage. Use of inferior hay decreases animal performance and may require the purchase of concentrates to boost animal performance. Either scenario reduces profitability. Likewise, lack of forages for winter feeding programs results in feeding hay and/or concentrates for an extended period of time. This also reduces profitability of the production system. Producers should evaluate their winter feeding programs and determine if changes should be made to reduce the winter feed costs of their livestock production enterprise. For additional information, contact  the local county agricultural Extension agent.



Ball, D.M., C.S. Hoveland, and G.D. Lacefield. 1996. Southern Forages, 2nd ed. Potash & Phosphate Institute and Foundation for Agronomic Research. Norcross, GA.


Clary, Greg and Sim Reeves. 1995. Estimated winter pasture and cow wintering costs. Symposium on Annual Ryegrass, 31 Aug. – 1 Sept.,1995, Tyler, TX. Texas A&M University Agr. Exp. Sta. MP-1770.


McGrann, James and Shawn Walter. 1995. Reducing costs with IRM/SPA data. Proc. NCA Cattlemen’s College, PE102. Nashville, TN.


Taliaferro, C.M., G.L. Williams, Jim Enis, S.W. Coleman, and F.T. McCollum. 1995. Performance of forage bermudagrass varieties in Oklahoma tests, 1992-1994. Oklahoma Cooperative Ext.ension Service Production Technology 95-11.


Other Extension publications that may be of  interest:



  • E-943 Forage Harvest Management – Discussion with cost benefit analysis
  • PSS-2072 Blister Beetles and Alfalfa
  • PSS-2089 Alfalfa Stand Establishment
  • PSS-2097 Alfalfa Weevil and Its Management
  • AGEC-539 Alfalfa Marketing Plan
  • EPP-7150 Alfalfa Forage Insect Control
  • EPP-7184 Alfalfa Aphids in Oklahoma
  • PT-95-24 Alfalfa Varieties for Oklahoma-1995 FORAGES
  • PSS-2559 Tall Fescue in Oklahoma
  • PSS-2584 Forage Budgeting Guidelines
  • PSS-2585 Forage Legumes for Oklahoma
  • PSS-2586 Wheat for Pasture
  • PSS-2587 Bermudagrass for Grazing or Hay
  • PSS-3020 Production and Management of Old World Bluestems Forage Grasses: What is Available and What Should You Use? Proc. of Forage Management College. Nov. 14, 1995. Vinita, OK. Okla. Coop. Ext. Serv.
  • Forage Legumes for Eastern Oklahoma. Proc. of Forage Management College. Nov. 14, 1995. Vinita, OK. Okla. Coop. Ext. Serv.
  • PT-95- 13 Arrowleaf Clover
  • PT-95- 14 Cool-season Perennial Forage Grasses for  Oklahoma
  • PT-95- 17 Red Clover
  • PT-95-28 Cool-season Perennial Forage Grass Establishment and Management
  • PT-95-29 White Clover
  • PT-96-36 Selecting Forages for Nutrient Recycling
  • PT-96-15 Cool-Season Perennial Forage Grasses for Oklahoma: Spring 1996 Data





  • PSS-2567 Grazing Systems for Pastures
  • PSS-257 Reducing Winter Feeding Costs
  • NREM-2869 Management Strategies for Rangeland and Introduced Pastures
  • NREM-2870 Drought Management Strategies
  • PSS-2871 Stocking Rate: The Key to Successful Livestock Production. OSU Extension Facts (in press)



  • AGMACH$ Agricultural Field Machinery Cost Estimation Software. OSU Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service.
  • BAE-1716 Round Bale Hay Storage



  • PSS-2207 How to Get a Good Soil Sample
  • PSS-2225 OSU Soil Test Interpretations
  • PSS-2239 Causes and Effects of Soil Acidity
  • What Do I Have to Work With? Proc. of Forage Management College. Nov. 14,1995. Vinita, OK. Okla. Coop. Ext. Serv.



  • 1995 Suggested Retail Cost for Herbicides in Oklahoma. Proc. of Forage Management College. Nov. 14, 1995. Vinita, OK. Okla. Coop. Ext. Serv.
  • Basal Herbicide Application Techniques. Proc. of Forage Management College. Nov. 14,1995. Vinita, OK. Okla. Coop. Ext. Serv.
  • E-832  1996 OSU Extension Agent’s Handbook of Insect, Plant Disease, and Weed Control. ($ 15)
  • PSS-2761 Weed Control in Alfalfa
  • NREM-2850 Eastern Red Cedar and its Control
  • PT-95-12  Broomsedge Management
  • Suggested Weed Control in Pasture and Range. Proc. of Forage Management College. Nov. 14,1995. Vinita, OK. Okla. Coop. Ext. Serv.
  • Weed and Brush Control in Grasslands. Proc. of Forage Management College. Nov. 14, 1995. Vinita, OK. Okla. Coop. Ext. Serv.


The author wishes to acknowledge Larry A. Redmon for providing material for this fact sheet.


Daren D. Redfearn
Extension Forage and Pasture Management Specialist

Was this information helpful?
Fact Sheet
Wildlife Food Plot Budgeting Tool User's Guide

By Eric DeVuyst and Courtney Bir. Learn how to use the OSU Food Plot budgeting tool which can help hunters and landowners estimate the cost of various food plant crops. This includes seed, fertilizer, pesticide and machine operating costs.

Budgets & RecordkeepingBusiness Planning & ManagementFarm & Ranch Finances
Fact Sheet
Western District Fires

Learn about the Western District Fires that occurred during the week of February 26, 2024, the damage valuation and recovery cost. By Amy Hagerman and Derrell Peel.

Fire EcologyWeather & Disaster PreparednessWildfire RecoveryWildfires
Fact Sheet
Minerals for Horses: Calcium and Phosphorus

By Kris Hiney. Learn about the most commonly talked about minerals that are often deficient in equine nutrition, Ca and P.

HayHorsesLivestockLivestock Health, Disease & NutritionLivestock NutritionPasturesPastures & Forage
Fact Sheet
Information Systems for Oklahoma Farmers

By Rodney Jones, Courtney Bir and Brent Ladd. Learn about the potential applications of records in business management and different record-keeping options.

Budgets & RecordkeepingBusiness Planning & ManagementFarm & Ranch Finances
Back To Top