Why Will Livestock Eat “Bad” Hay?



One of the mysteries of husbandry that baffles me is how cows will sometimes take a notion to eat stuff that I wouldn’t think a starving goat would touch. I don’t know how often I have observed livestock forsake good, green clover hay and start gnawing on straw bedding. My son told me recently that his steers will occasionally abandon good hay in the barn and wander out on dead winter pasture and gobble away. Once when I was young and inexperienced, I decided to make some red clover hay in October because, well, because it was there and we needed hay and at that time I did not know about the possibilities of winter grazing. My father warned me not to, but being contrary….

The hay wouldn’t dry. Just laid there and glared at me. Finally after five days I raked it up, waited another day and baled it although it still was not really dry. In the mow, the bales turned chocolate brown with a whitish mold on them. A total loss, I thought, but I threw one down to see what the cows would think. To my amazement, they went after it like kids after candy. I still don’t know why.

Recently, I got an email from Ralph Rice, one of the most energetic small farmers I have ever met. He had a tale about “bad” hay that was even more unbelievable. In his part of Ohio last year, he experienced a very wet spring and summer. He had some weed-choked oats that he decided to cut for hay. The oat and weed foliage lay flat on the ground for six days, still not drying very much but with rain threatening again, he raked and baled it on the seventh day. He just wanted to get it off the field and thought it so worthless that he didn’t even use twine to tie the big round bales. When they came out of the baler, the bales fluffed out a bit but still held together well enough so he could move them to the edge of the field. There they sat until winter.

To his amazement, his livestock, including the horses and the hogs, loved this mess— gobbled up every bit except what was in direct contact with the ground. He examined the roughage closely. The oat grains had actually matured a bit in the bale. Because the bales had not been tied, they were loose enough to allow air through them. The oat stems and the weeds had not molded or rotted, just a bit musty in places. He sent me pictures that show mostly brown and yellow foliage but a little green in the oat leaves. The ragweed and barnyard grass had not yet gone to seed much. The animals ate it all.

We all know that oat hay, properly dried, makes tolerable feed. But this is something different. Ralph says his livestock liked the ragweed and barnyard grass just about as much as the oat grains and stems. I knew a farmer in my Pennsylvania days who baled ripe oats and fed it to his milk cows. They ate the grain and the straw became their bedding. In my Minnesota days, a farmer I worked for was fond of telling how in the drouth years of the thirties, he fed his cows oat straw from his straw stack to keep them alive. Amish farmers here in our area are now planting fall oats for lush early winter pasture. Sometimes I wonder if we will ever have all the answers. Or maybe farm animals are just as contrary as their owners and like to go out of their way to dumbfound us.

Another theory. When I was on the road as a journalist with an expense account, I would dine at ritzy restaurants I could not afford otherwise. I gorged on rich prime steaks. When I got home, all I wanted to eat for a few days was fruit and fruit juices.


Thanks Gene

Any broad leaf and tree will be highly mineralized, cattle and goats can tell and will use brush and trees to balance out their feed ration. Even plants with high tannins can be grazed if the livestock are used to a diverse diet each day, the tannins are supposed to be natural wormers. If you get out there and test the sugars in the plants throughout the day you will find the weeds will have more sugar at some point of the day than the grass, and if you pay attention to the livestock it will probably correlate with what they are choosing, remember a cow always eats what is best first, and she can always harvest a more nutrient dense diet better for herself than what we can provide for her. Consider all plants when looking at forage for cattle and livestock.

The rumen is an amazing thing.
I have no problem with some moldy hay as long as the cattle are not being force fed the moldy hay. Always consider the cattle daily needs.
Cattle are also smarter than we think, with planned grazing the rumen tends to stay incredibly tuned to handle forage in which research data suggests they can not handle.
There is a distinction between force feeding and planned grazing and considering the cows daily intake needs.

As part of my never ending experiment of farming I tried something last summer which may fit this discussion.
I had a buck rake built to fit over the forks on my loader. a three acre field of barley got pastured too hard in the spring so it came up real weedy with barley, ragweed, quack grass, pigweed, etc throughout. I didn’t think it was worth the twine to bale so I cut it and raked it up. then I picked it up with the buck rake and just stacked it in the field – no cover, not symmetrical, etc. nothing like the “Monet” style loose stacks that Gene puts up – just stacked in a windrow about 10′ wide and as tall as the loader would reach.
well it rained quite a bit and I figured I would just have to load it and spread it this spring.
Well lo and behold when I turned the horses in for their winter pasture they ate it up (along with the green left in the field) leaving maybe a couple of wheelbarrows at the end.
This was not traditional feed and they ate it all avidly not just the seedheads. they also had green growth in front of them as well as standard hay.
I plan on using this technique to harvest all of my pasture excess this year and just stack it in the pasture it is cut from. I do plan on trying to shape the stack better and “lord willing’ and the crik don’t rise” maybe I even will cover some with a tarp.
if this works it may mean I don’t have to replace my old JD 24T baler with a newer model.
Very, very few of my experiments work even a little so I tend to crow about those that do show promise.
i’ll let everyone know how this turns out.
Dan Hubbell

I created an addict out of one cow last summer. It started out slowly. I always throw cukes, corn stalks, etc. to my cows all summer but things got out of control last year. I had more watermelons and pumpkins than I could eat and one cow got really hooked on them. It got so bad she would not graze with the others. She stood by the fence, in front of the garden every morning and watched me through my front window. Since she knew I was home, she would not leave the fence or even graze there until I came out and fed her three or four watermelons. As I would approach with the first one she would start jumping up and down and snorting loudly. After her “fix” she would go off and graze, but if she spotted me anywhere in the yard during the day, she would run – fast – across the 40 acre pasture, only skidding to a stop at the fence edge and snorting and blowing snot until I came over with a watermelon. I realized I had created this situation, and it was a relief when fall came and the cattle were put up in their paddocks.

Another reason I love this blog is that I get to hear about what really happens out there in the natural world and not what someone else has researched (usually funded by someone with an interest in the outcome) that is supposed to happen! And that’s thanks to Gene and all of you–so interesting to read about your experiences with foraging animals.

After watching my goats this past “polar vortex” winter, I’m wondering if I control my herd size for the amount of forage I have, do I even need to hay my goats in the winter? They ate some hay, wasted a lot of it, but preferred to be let out of their home paddock to browse on their own–just like the deer around here do.

And the experiences with more loosely baled hay makes a lot of sense too. My plans for this year are to make some weedy hay “doodles” of my own, let them out to be contained by the perimeter fence in the winter, and see what happens.

Nutrient makeup in plants is derived directly from the soil, so soil balance, nutritive quality and ‘taste’ are specifically related. When the plant is harvested–whether grazed or cut for fodder–there are many soil nutrients that are “trapped” in the plant, based on time of day, season, life cycle of the plant, etc. Most plant nutrients will move from soil to plant, plant to soil, many times over in the life of a plant. Some move simply based on supply-and-demand while others have specific tasks, like moving sugars produced in photosynthesis.

Potash is a good one; on cloudy days, it hangs out in the plant waiting for sugar to be made. Once photosynthesis makes the ‘food’, the potash (potassium) is the carrier and will take it down the plant to the soil for the microbes and soil biology to use as nourishment to return the favor and convert soil nutrients to forms available for the host plant to use. If hay is grown on high-potash soils and cut the first day the sun comes out after a few days of spring rains, that potash gets trapped in the plant and the hay will be awful–almost toxic– and most animals will not touch it. If the haymaker waits a few days, however, and allows that potash to move back down into the soil then the hay will be much more nutritious and taste good too.

There is also much study recently on the benefits of animals grazing weeds (specifically cattle) and we are finding out that many plants that we have considered undesirable for grazing are higher in overall nutritive quality that many of the typical grazing species. It has been said that the cow is a far better chemist than we ever will be, so in most cases, they will know what is good for them and what is not. That said, starving animals will eat poisonous plants simply to survive…and often they don’t.

Thanks Gene! Hope you and Carol are making it through the winter. Spring should be right around the corner.

I am sure the critters know what they need and eat accordingly. We all get cravings for one reason or another. My guess is that the weeds tap into the subsoil and pull up a few more nutrients and may be more nutrient dense than the “good” forage. The fermentation idea on the grain makes a lot of sense to. I never knew and animal that did not like the taste of beer.

I am surprised no researcher has looked into this…but if it were true they would have to promote more weeds!

By the way, I read Gene Everlasting and it is by far one of my top 5 all time favorites. I laughed and I cried while reading this book. It made me realize we are more blessed than we think.

I bet it has to do with fermentation. Funny thing is that the goats at the dairy my husband manages are the really picky ones, contrary to the usual goat stereotype, and the cows will eat moldy and musty things happily. But they are all picky to some degree, and I’m sure it’s a good thing. On a farm we worked on in Maryland, the beef cattle were grass fed and had some really nice pasture to graze on, but some days for whatever reason they would ignore the grass and move along the hedgerows eating little bits of trees and “weeds”. They know what their bodies need and find it that way. Those were really healthy, sleek cows. Delicious tasting too!

Out here in CA where we are now, there are problems with the range cattle eating all the oak saplings. The leaves are high in tannins, I believe, but also high in protein. During the dry parts of the year when the grass is yellow and overgrazed, the cows will eat whatever oak leaves they can reach. They make a decent forage, but trees grow much more slowly than grass, especially California oaks–better grazing management would spare them.

Mr. Logsdon, when I ponder how we ended up managing a small dairy in rural California, when only three years before we were city slickers attempting to get arts degrees, I lay the blame partially at your feet. If I hadn’t by chance found The Contrary Farmer at the library, I might not be in this mess. God bless you!

I’ve heard oldtimers here in the Ozarks tell how they got their cattle through the great drought in the 1950’s by cutting limbs off the oak trees to let them eat the foliage.

If you ever cut a Hickory tree in a pasture the cows will rush over and eat every leaf and also love grape vines.I have a heifer that we bottle fed and raised with goats she can ride down a really big tree to eat the leaves.Had a pile of old hay where I had fed the goats last Winter about 10 large round bales in all were fed and the goats ate some,wasted some and then laid on it,and manured on it.Along about May when grass had come in and I had quit feeding I turned some cows in the field with what was going to be my garden mulch,well the cows rushed over to the mulch hay pile with the goat poop and all and ate almost all of it.Go figure never know what a cow is going to decide to do.

Yes I don’t think it is at all uncommon. I recall a bale of straw that somehow got wet and seemed to ferment in the bale. It was a dirty yellow brown and I was reluctant even put it down for bedding, but being a bit short of feed I performed my usual practice of opening a bale of straw to let the critters pick out what they want then use the remainder for bedding. In this case that nasty looking bale of straw was consumed with gusto, there was none left to put down as bedding, goats the cow, even the pigs seemed to lap it up. Similarly last week I shredded some old wood and some fairly new orchard prunings, then placed the sack of shredded woody material on the manure pack thinking the chickens might scratch it around for bedding. Going to the barn a day later showed little evidence of the woody material except for a few strands. I think the goats essentially ate it all.

Similarly I placed fresh red oak leaves down for bedding, but they ate that up right away too. I’ve read somewhere that oak leaves are toxic to critters, but my goats didn’t read that book and they are all still alive and kicking. Similarly my geese will eat corn from the cob and then take the cobs over to the stock tank , then dunk the cobs and nibble on them and play with them for hours, just like I do with rubber ducks and toy boats in the bathtub. I don’t know if they think they are getting food value or if it just something fun to do for them.

But, as a comparison, don’t forget some of us humans eat sauerkraut and yoghurt and aged cheese and some folks even eat mushrooms and caviar. I enjoy a good glass of red wine with dinner, my wife can’t even stand the smell or the taste of the wine. Similarly with Coffee, she can’t bear the taste or the smell of a good cup of coffee, but I don’t want to live without such. . Maybe the old saying:”there is no accounting for taste” applies to both humans and critters.

Maybe ragweed taste good or oat straw is fun to chew or moldy yellow spots in hay is a luxury food – sort of like blue cheese dressing on a lettuce salad.
Could it be that animals know what’s best to eat and good 2nd cut hay day in a day out gets tiresome 😉

I’ve heard of cows that ate moldy hay aborting calves … and fires starting from “hot” (not dry) hay. I guess there is luck, good and bad, in everything.

Here in Vermont. I buy late first cut hay – mostly stem for my overweight donkeys. Since they are a single stomach chambered species I take great care to keep the hay dry. In the past when I have cleaned out poultry nest boxes and hay that the donks have soiled and move to a pile outside to decompose for next years garden bed. The donks, even though they have a bale of dry hay, and last year they had about 1/2 acre of grass/weeds/ berry bushes growing in from a woods clearing project, chose to chow down on the feces/urine pile starting to steam away. Other donkey folks have mentioned the same thing. I have no idea why, but all I do know is that they have the option of eating something better so I let them be.

Why did my goats eat all the ironweed in the grass hay I bought this year before they would touch the grass?? Doesn’t surprise me at all that the animals went after the ragweed, that is goaty crack around here. At least the giant ragweed, more than knee high. They won’t eat it before then.

Is it fermenting? Could it possibly be converting cellulose to alcohol or lactic acid?

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