Hay: Buy the Bale or by the ton

Buying hay can be a major feed expense for people owning livestock since it makes up a large part of the diets of sheep, cattle, horses, goats, etc. Here in southwest Wisconsin, we are fortunate to live in an area where hay is readily available. However, our climate is not always ideal for making good quality hay and storage may also be an issue. For limited resource farms, estimating forage needs for your animals, hay quality concerns and pricing are all topics to consider before buying hay.

Before buying hay in quantity, you should estimate the amount of hay you will need for your animals. Intake of forages can be estimated at 2.0 – 5.0 % body weight on a daily basis. This figure varies because animals that are growing or lactating may need a higher forage intake to support those activities than mature animals that just need a maintenance level of nutrients for forages. Likewise, growing and lactating animals may need higher quality forage to produce to their genetic capacity.

Let’s use 3% of body weight as our estimator for several species and classes of livestock just to illustrate how to calculate the amount of forage needed per day:

Class of Livestock Weight, Lbs. Estimated Daily Intake @ 3% body wt. lbs.
Dairy Cows 1400 42.0
Yearling dairy heifer 750 22.5
Weaned dairy calf 300 9.0
Beef Cow 1200 36.0
Weaned beef calf 500 15.0
Horse 1100 33.0
Ewe 170 5.1
Feeder lamb 70 2.1
Rabbit 6.0 0.18

To estimate the amount of forage dry matter (DM) needed, next multiply the number of days hay will need to be fed with the estimated daily intake and divide by 2000 to get the estimate in tons. Let’s use a weaned beef calf weighing 500 lbs. for our example:

15.0 lb/day X 180 days = 1.35 tons dry matter

2000 lbs/ton

Because hay is not 100% dry matter, we have to adjust our estimate to an “as fed” basis to account for the moisture in hay. Let’s estimate our stored hay at 12% moisture, 88% dry matter:

1.35 tons dry matter x 1.12 = 1.5 tons hay as fedneeded for each 500 lb. calf

Next we need to know what the size of our hay “package” is. Dry hay is typically sold as small square bales, round bales, or large square bales.  Actual bale size varies depending on the baling equipment used, so a representative sample should be weighed to estimate the package weight for the hay you are using. In our example, we are using 40 lb. small square bales, thus there are 50 small square bales per ton of hay as fed. If we need 1.5 tons per calf, we need to buy 75 bales per calf. Remember that this is a general calculation and you need to fine tune your numbers for your own livestock according to their needs and the quality of hay you are buying!!

There are several species of forages that can be used to produce hay. In southwest Wisconsin, alfalfa and alfalfa mixed with grasses such as smooth bromegrass, orchardgrass or timothy are the most common types of hay produced. Any of these may be of excellent or very poor quality— it all depends on management of the hay crop: when and how it is harvested, weather conditions, soil fertility, etc. Ideally, alfalfa and alfalfa mixed hays are cut by what we call the “1/10th bloom stage”, when approximately 10% of alfalfa plants have flowers. For very high quality hay, the alfalfa may be cut prior to 1/10th bloom, as often done for dairy cattle. When buying, look for hay that is leafy, has a soft texture, a pleasant odor, and is free of weeds or other foreign matter. Avoid hay that is musty, moldy, weedy, and very coarse in texture. Obtain a forage sample for analysis from hay that you buy, or buy hay that has been tested to determine the amount of nutrients present.

In Wisconsin, forage quality of hay is expressed in terms of crude protein (CP), relative forage quality (RFQ), quantity and digestibility of fibers: neutral detergent fiber (NDF) or acid detergent fiber (ADF). Forage quality recommendations are available for each animal species. In general, forages with less than 70% NDF and more than 8% crude protein contain enough nutrients to maintain mature, nonproducing animals. Breeding, lactating, and growing animals will need forages with a higher nutrient content. Consult with your local extension office, or seek assistance with an animal nutritionist through your local feed store, for more information on nutrient requirements of your livestock.

It is usually less expensive to buy hay by the ton (2000 pounds per ton) than to buy a bale of hay at a time. However, factors other than cost may influence whether you are able to buy hay in bulk quantities, including:

• Availability of storage space for large quantities of hay

• How long it takes your animals to use a given quantity of hay

• Your ability to transport and handle the bales

• Your ability to pay for a large quantity of hay at once

For example, if you have two sheep and very little storage area for hay on your property, it makes better sense to buy your hay a few bales at a time, even though it may be somewhat more expensive. Remember that delivery costs are an additional expense of buying hay.

Pricing of hay is another question often asked.  Don’t be afraid to pay for good quality hay because it is relatively inexpensive compared to other feeds. For example, although $100 per ton seems like a high price, it is only $ 0.05 per pound, whereas a 50 lb. bag of grain at $10.00 per bag costs $0.20 per pound. Buying good quality hay makes any supplements you feed go farther.

In summary, estimate the amount and quality of hay needed for your livestock, consulting with available expertise as needed and buy hay in a form that you can store and handle. Here are some additional resources for more information:

UW Extension Resources on hay and related


UW Forage Research & Extension website:


UW Animal Science Extension website:


UW Team Forage website:


UW Extension Publications:


A3772 Buying Horse Hay

A2309 Sampling Hay, Silage and Total

Mixed Rations for Analysis

A2387 Rations for Beef Cattle

Author: Rhonda Gildersleeve,

Iowa County Ag Agent

Originally Published: The Weekend Farmer, Fall 2006