Gene Logsdon: Why Will Livestock Eat “Bad” Hay?

The Contrary Farmer

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.