Rachel worked as a farm manager for 3 years in Pennsylvania. She owned and operated a small farm in Minnesota for 5 years, until 2019.
How much hay do I need for the winter if I have a cow? Ten goats? Five sheep? A miniature horse, and a llama?
This is a question asked all over the internet in discussion boards and forums, at your local feed stores, and farmer-to-farmer. People don't often give a simple answer to this simple question, and much ado is made about this mysterious topic. To answer this query, you need to know how many days you'll need to be feeding hay for, about how much your animals weigh, and then calculate their feed needs based on their body weight!
Whether you're a small farmer, a homesteader, a horse-keeper, or just have some hay-eaters for pets, you'll find some useful information in this article to help you decide how much hay to buy (or bale!) for your critters.
How to Estimate the Weight of Animals Without the Use of a Scale
If you can't weigh your animals on like, a bathroom scale, you can still make an educated guess at their weight. That way, you aren't over or underestimating feed needs too extremely.
- Weight tape: This is a measuring tape designed for specific species, to be wrapped around their girth in order to give a good estimate of their weight.
- Check breed standards: If you are raising a specific breed of animal, like a Jersey cow or fainting goats, check the breed standards; height and weight are often listed as a range. Compare the written standards to your living animals.
- Ask a more experienced person: You can always talk to the person you purchased the animals from, or another knowledgeable person such as a farmer or a veterinarian to help you make a good estimate.
Livestock Hay Needs for a Day
|Animal (Percentage of weight needed in hay)||Average Weight||Hay Needed per Day|
Beef Steer (1%)
Hay Needs Estimates Based on Percentage of Body Weight
Here's the equation that considers the percentage of the animals' body weight and what they need to consume in hay (dry matter) each day.
- (weight of animals) x (required percentage of body weight) x (number of days of "winter feeding") = total amount of hay to buy or bale
Check the chart above to find the required percentage of body weight for your animals. It is important to know that pregnant animals need more feed. For example, pregnant sheep need up to 5% of their body weight in hay each day, and pregnant goats sometimes need up to 6%.
With that information, you can figure out how much hay to feed in the winter. Here it is again, in written form:
- Calculate the estimated weight of all of your animals, be specific.
- Then, multiply that number by the corresponding body weight percentage. This could look something like: 8 sheep weighing an estimated total of 1,000 pounds, multiplied by 5% because they are pregnant, equals 50 pounds of feed for all the sheep, every day.
- Next, multiply how many pounds you've figured you need each day by the total number of days you need to feed hay for probably somewhere between 90 and 180, depending on your climate. This number of days may not correspond to the actual winter months, but is actually the number of days that the animals will have no pasture to graze.
I feed hay, at the very least, November through the end of May, for a total of about 210 days. In the sheep scenario I mentioned above, I would need to purchase 10,500 pounds of hay for the entire winter. The large round bales of hay I buy are typically between 1500 and 2000 pounds; therefore, in this scenario, I would only buy 6–8 bales of hay. At around $20 per bale for these large round bales, you can see that my winter feed costs in this scenario aren't through the roof.
Remember that I said pregnant animals need more feed, so you will need to consider the length in days of their gestation to determine how much more. I only feed sheep at the 5% margin during the last 45 days of their gestation, for example.
Do you have winter forage available to you? Last year's crop fields and gardens can sometimes provide some for your livestock, depending (of course!) on your climate. Also, pastures that weren't overgrazed the year before and wooded areas that need to be cleared of brush can also be good areas for animals to forage during the winter, provided the ground is not buried in snow.
Many regions will have some natural winter forage available, and you can always look into planting something for your livestock to eat during the winter, depending on what zone you are farming in.
Consider the Brutality of Your Winters
When I work on figuring out how much hay I need to have to get through the winter, I take the number that I got from the percentage body weight equation and automatically increase it by 10%. I feel that this takes care of any optimism-induced errors on my part, and also makes up for the fact that I may have underestimated the bodyweight of one or some of my animals. A 10% increase won't hurt your pocketbook too badly if, in the end, you've overestimated.
Another big consideration in the how-much-hay query is how harsh your winters are. When temperatures are very cold, like in the single digits, your animals will need more energy to keep themselves warm and will, therefore, need to eat more.
Here in Minnesota, winter can start as early as October; if snow covers the ground, the animals can't forage easily, so hay is needed. It can take until the beginning of May for pastures to green up again, and winter feeding to officially come to a close.
On the contrary, when I lived in Pennsylvania, we often still had forage available for sheep and goats into December (although it wasn't enough for the horses in most cases), and could see green up as early as late March. The Southern states of the US might only have a 60-day window where hay is really necessary to keep animals from growing thin.
So, if you have particularly cold winters, like I do, go ahead and assume that during those coldest months, your animals will need to consume an extra percentage of body weight point. Your pregnant sheep will likely need to eat that full 5% of their body weight instead of just 3 or 4%.
The Quality of Hay
I have only ever made hay in small amounts, by hand with a scythe, and I am ignorant in almost all things related to mowing and baling hay with machines. One of my goals as a beginning farmer is to produce at least half of the hay that my livestock need by the third year of owning my farm. Until then, like so many of us, I must buy it.
Hay comes in different forms, and its nutrition content is determined by factors such as the type of grasses or legumes that comprise the hay, the nutrients that were available in the soil, whether the hay is the 1st or 3rd cut of the season, etc.
To be honest, it can get pretty complicated, and I must confess that I don't fret much over this information. Here's how I "select" hay.
I want a hay that is:
- Local to me, first and foremost, because it is likely to be comprised of the same or similar combination of grasses and clovers that are in my pastures (unless my pastures are sub-standard). The soil type and nutrient content are also likely to be similar. If I can purchase hay from the horse farmer across the road, that is almost ideal for me.
- I want a hay that has a mix of grasses and legumes; you probably do, too.
- We would both probably prefer that the bales have not been rained on (unless, of course, there is no mold growth present and little moisture, and the farmer is selling the bales at a reduced rate).
What hay quality can mean for our hay-needed equation: If you purchase hay that seems to be good quality, then you probably don't need to make any alterations to the amount of hay you've figured you needed based on the information we have already discussed. However, if you know for a fact that you are buying lower-quality hay, sometimes marketed as "cover hay," then you should buy a small amount and see how your animals do with it before purchasing large quantities. Sometimes you just need to feed larger quantities of hay that is lower in protein than other nutrients, or only feed the lower quality hay as a maintenance feed rather than, for example, during the third trimester of gestation in pregnant ewes.
Hay quality and type can be especially important in dairy animals including cows, goats, and sheep, and you should do your research to make sure you are buying the right type of hay to meet these additional nutritional requirements.
If you're interested in more detail about the nutrition content of the hay you've purchased (or your own pastures), contact your local agricultural extension office. They can provide you with information about how to have your hay or pastures tested and analyzed.
Hay Feeding Solutions
How you feed out the hay can make a big difference in how much hay you need to buy. Using hay racks, panels, and cages are the best way to reduce hay waste. Most animals won't eat much of the hay that falls to the ground in their winter confinement areas or even out in the pasture and will turn it into bedding instead.
Body Condition Score
At the end of the day, body condition scoring is absolutely the best way to determine if your animals are getting enough to eat, regardless of whether you think you're feeding them enough or not. The body condition score (BCS) system will vary between species of livestock animals, and you should ensure that you do your research and understand how to read the BCS of your particular animals and respond appropriately to any issues.
Animals that are losing weight for no medical reason that you're aware of the need to be fed more. The flip-side of weight loss is that it is also unhealthy to overfeed your animals and cause them to gain too much weight. As always, I recommend you consult a veterinarian if you are unsure about your animals' health.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2017 Rachel Koski Nielsen
Dan on April 10, 2019:
I like to know where you get a 1500lb bale for $20. More like 100-120 a bale
Suhail Zubaid aka Clark Kent from Mississauga, ON on November 05, 2017:
This is a very informative article, Rachel! I liked the analysis.
I had thought that farmers always mix some good quality nutrients (that just fall short of medicines) in the hay for making it more nutritional for the animals and that hay is actually only a filler. Was I totally off on this?
Suhail and my dog K2