Round hay bale in snow dusted field
Updated: December 21, 2022
By Amanda Grev, Ph.D.

Winter Hay Feeding Strategies

Focal point

  • Hay can provide a source of nutrition for animals AND soil
  • Bale feeders minimize feeding losses but can cause mud/manure buildup
  • Unrolling hay can reduce mud/manure buildup issues but may increase feeding losses
  • Bale grazing can be more labor efficient and encourage even manure distribution, but may increase hay waste
  • Select feeding sites that are well-drained and may be in need of improvement
  • Increased feeding frequency can help reduce feeding waste


When it comes to feeding hay during the winter, a variety of feeding strategies can be implemented. Hay can be fed in a confinement or field-based setting, with or without bale feeders, or by utilizing a strategy like unrolling hay or bale grazing. Each of these methods carries its own advantages and disadvantages regarding wasted hay, impacts on standing forage, nutrient and manure dispersal, soil health implications, and labor requirements.

Keep in mind that the hay we are feeding is not only a source of nutrition for livestock but can also be a valuable source of soil nutrients. Every bale of hay contains nutrients, and when fed to livestock a majority of those nutrients will pass through the animals and can be recycled for future forage growth. As an example, if we assume one ton of hay contains 45 pounds of nitrogen, 15 pounds of phosphorus, and 55 pounds of potassium, at the current nutrient prices that one ton of hay equals over $90 per ton in nutrient value. How and where that hay is fed will make a big difference in nutrient recovery.

Bale Feeders

Feeding hay out of bale feeders is most often done in a confinement setting or designated feeding area, but can also be done on pasture or hayfields. Advantages to utilizing a bale feeder include minimizing hay waste and feeding losses, with feeder design having a significant impact on the amount of waste. Feeders that are more restrictive and limit the opportunity animals have to trample or soil hay will reduce waste substantially.

“...livestock will waste less hay when the amount fed is limited to what is needed each day, as daily feeding will force them to eat hay they might otherwise refuse, trample, or waste.“

Disadvantages to using a bale feeder include the machinery and labor requirements needed to move or distribute bales, manure removal if livestock are confined to a given area, and damage from livestock trampling that occurs around feeder sites. Mud creates two main problems for cattle during the winter: more energy is needed to walk through it compared to solid ground, and caked on mud robs the hide of its insulation properties. As mud depth increases, energy needs increase but daily intakes have been shown to decrease, resulting in a reduction in animal gains. If feeding in a single location, providing a footing such as crushed gravel or concrete will help minimize ground damage and mud issues. Alternatively, hay feeding areas can be moved around periodically to minimize the damage to any one given area, provide some manure and nutrient dispersal, and reduce accumulation of waste residue.

Unrolling Hay

Feeding hay using this strategy involves unrolling bales out on the ground across a pasture or hay field, thereby spreading the hay across a greater feeding area. Advantages of this strategy are that it can minimize the concentrated ground damage that often occurs around feeder sites where livestock have congregated for extended periods of time. This means there are often less issues with mud, keeping livestock cleaner and making it easier for them to maintain body condition. Unrolling hay also allows valuable nutrients from hay waste and animal manure to be deposited back onto the soil and spread across a greater area of the field. Decomposing hay residue, along with manure and urine, is distributed across the field and can help improve soil organic matter and increase forage growth in subsequent years. Nutrient retention under this type of setting has been shown to be superior to that of traditional systems that involve handling and spreading manure, even if the manure is composted.

Disadvantages to rolling bales out include the labor and machinery required to unroll bales on a regular basis and the potential for increased hay waste. Unrolling hay typically results in more hay waste compared to other feeding methods, particularly when conditions are wet and muddy. That said, the amount of hay wasted will depend on a number of factors, including the quality of the hay and the amount of hay offered at one time. For example, if a 3-day (or longer) supply of hay is provided at one time, feeding losses of 40% or more can be expected, but if hay is fed daily those losses can be reduced down to 15% or less. To minimize spoilage with unrolled hay, it is recommended to not unroll more than the group can eat in 24 hours. Animals will also waste less if the hay is higher quality, and waste can be further reduced by running a single strand of polywire along the center of the windrow.

Bale Grazing

access to a portion of the bales at one time using electric fencing. After a given number of days or once the hay is cleaned up, the fencing is re-set or livestock are rotated to provide access to a new set of bales. The number of bales offered at once and the time period in a given area can vary, but an optimal bale grazing period will balance labor requirements, animal nutrition, and hay waste. Offering more bales at a time and moving livestock every few weeks requires less labor but will likely result in greater waste, more trampling, and potentially less than optimal gains, while offering fewer bales at a time and moving livestock every few days requires more labor but will likely limit excessive waste, minimize trampling, and maximize gains.

Advantages to bale grazing include a reduction in machinery use, fuel costs, and labor during the feeding period. Because the bales are preset, hay can be put out in late fall or early winter when the weather is better and there is often less soil damage and compaction from equipment driving on wet fields. Moving wagonloads of hay during dry conditions is also much more efficient than hauling one or two bales at a time by tractor throughout the winter months. Similar to unrolling hay, bale grazing can also offer benefits in terms of added soil fertility, improved manure and nutrient distribution, and cleaner wintering conditions for livestock. Bale grazing is a great way to spread manure and nutrients across a pasture, and bales can be strategically placed on poorer areas of the field, such as those with thinning forage, bare spots, less productive yields, or nutrient deficiencies.

Disadvantages to bale grazing include the potential for hay waste and damage to existing forage stands. Depending on the amount of bales offered at a given time, this method also has potential for greater amounts of hay waste; however, hay rings can still be utilized within this system to help limit waste. Where hay rings are used, they can be rolled from old bales to new bales and flipped over into place. There is also concern over whether this feeding strategy will damage pasture stands, especially in regions with more rainfall and warmer winters. While this is a legitimate concern, utilizing good management practices can help to minimize these issues. They key to effective bale grazing on wetter soils is to keep the animals moving forward to new areas and to feed at low hay densities. Current recommendations for the Eastern US are to keep feeding densities to two tons of hay or less per acre. Feeding at higher densities can result in more severe pugging in wet conditions.

Tips for Success

When it comes to feeding hay in a field-based setting, there are some management strategies that can be implemented to help minimize issues. Here are some tips for success:

  • Choose a feeding area with well-drained soils, ideally on a gentle to moderate slope, and avoid feeding near surface water.
  • Avoid damage to standing forage by feeding hay bales at low densities. Spacing bales further apart can help limit the amount of ground that gets torn up. Declines in pasture quality can mean animals or bales are stocked too heavy.
  • Limit the amount of time livestock are fed in a given area. Moving livestock every day or or every few days will help minimize ground damage.
  • Feeding frequency will impact hay waste. Although it is tempting to provide enough hay for several days, livestock will waste less hay when the amount fed is limited to what is needed each day, as daily feeding will force them to eat hay they might otherwise refuse, trample, or waste. On average, 25% more hay is needed when a 4-day supply is fed with free access.
  • When picking feeding areas, select areas that are in need of some improvements or renovation. Prioritize poorer areas of the field, such as those with thinning forage, bare spots, less productive yields, or nutrient deficiencies.
  • Feed high quality hay to minimize refusals and hay waste. Livestock will waste a greater percentage of poor-quality hay than they will of good-quality hay.
  • Be flexible and be cognizant of animal and weather conditions. If an area is too wet or ground conditions are deteriorating, move livestock to another area or to a dry lot.

Last but not least, it should be recognized that no single hay feeding strategy will work best for all farms. Instead, producers must weigh the benefits and drawbacks from these different feeding methods, select a method based on their goals, and manage accordingly.

This article appears on December 21, 2022, in Volume 3, Issue 4 of the Maryland Milk Moos newsletter.

Maryland Milk Moo's, December 21, 2022, Vol.3, Issue 4

Maryland Milk Moos is a quarterly newsletter published by the University of Maryland Extension that focuses on dairy topics related to Nutrition and Production, Herd Management, and Forage Production. To subscribe to this newsletter, click the button below to enter your contact information.