How Much Hay Does a Cow Eat?

Can the Silage-Making Process be Used with Small Herds?

How Much Hay Does a Cow Eat?

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After you unload the first cattle onto your property, your next biggest concern will be how to keep up with the demand for food. Knowing a ballpark estimate of how much hay does a cow eat will help you prepare. Grazing pasture is best, but if you are doing a combination of grazing, feeding hay, and supplementing with grain, you soon realize that cattle have big appetites.

Square bales of hay are convenient for carrying and dispensing, but they are eaten up like hors ‘d oeuvres by hungry cattle. Round bales last much longer but of course take up more storage space and are difficult to move without equipment. From the perspective of a small herd owner on a family homestead, I will tell you that feeding the cattle was our biggest concern. Keeping them fed so that they would not have the urge to push down the fencing and escape was our concern. Before we had cattle, we were long-time dairy goat owners and breeders. Horses had been the first animals on our farm, so we were not strangers to keeping livestock. But, boy those cows are big. and hungry all the time. Cattle farming for beginners takes some planning.

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How Much Hay Does a Cow Eat?

Learning how to start a cattle farm would require that you know how much it will cost to raise the animals to market weight. Those cute calves you bring home when they weigh a couple hundred pounds carry some big appetites! Just how much hay does a cow eat? The recommendation I have used is 3 pounds of hay for each 100 lbs of weight. So your 250-pound feeder calf needs 7 pounds of hay per day. A square bale isn’t going to last very long at that rate! And remember, as you are feeding, the cows are growing. The daily intake will continue to grow. Even if you choose a breed of miniature cattle, hay and pasture will still be your biggest concern.



The terms forage and roughage refer to the plants consumed by the cattle while grazing. This can be pasture grasses and plants or hay. Hay is dried grasses and legumes. The rumen requires forage in order to process food. Options include, pasture, hay from either grasses or legumes and silage. In addition, some cattle operations will finish the cows on additional grain concentrate.  


Silage is often used in large cattle operations. Silage is an excellent source of high protein forage for the cows during times of poor grazing conditions. However, silage is usually stored in an airtight silo building to protect the food from spoiling. Silage is commonly made from a mixture of corn plants and grass hay or legume hay. It is put up while the moisture content is still relatively high, kept at a warm temperature, and fed as a fermented feed stuff. The problem for the small cattle herd is keeping the silage stored safely.

Some forage crops have a hard time drying enough to be kept as hay. Silage is the answer to this problem as it can be stored at 30 percent moisture content. The length of time you can store silage is much longer than other feed stuff for cattle. Properly stored silage can be kept for around 4 or 5 years. Because it is stored in a compressed form, it takes less space than storage of hay. The nutrition value of silage increases as it ferments.

The disadvantages to silage for the small scale beef production herd are mostly cost related. While you can make silage and store it in heavy plastic bags, it is labor intensive. The bags must be stored under cover. Harvesting and storing the forage in the silo requires heavy equipment and a silo. It would not be cost effective for the landowner planning to raise a few head of cattle for the family’s dinner table. Buying large pieces of equipment to harvest and store silage probably isn’t the answer.


Round Bales

Round 4 x 4 bales of hay weigh in the vicinity of 500 to 800 pounds. The way the round bale is created allows it to sit out in the weather without getting ruined. Cows can eat some wet hay or they just tear it off the outside and get to the dry hay inside. This is not, however, a good plan for feeding horses, who can be sickened by eating wet, deteriorating hay.

Square Bales

Small square bales of hay weigh about 50 to 65 pounds on average. The smaller size makes them convenient for carrying. Square bales of hay are less economical for feeding. It takes quite a few small square bales to equal the feeding power of a large round bale. Comparisons should only be made based on tons. The other thing to consider with square bales is storage. Square bales must be stored in a covered, dry area. Round bales can be left outside.

Feeding cattle using square bales makes little sense when you refer back to the math used earlier in this article. Three pounds of hay for each one hundred pounds of weight equals out to quite a bit of hay for a finished steer. A 1200-pound cow, ready for processing, will require 36 pounds of forage per day based on the formula used here. Thirty-six pounds of hay is close to one small square bale of hay per day, taking into consideration some waste.  

Conversely, feeding one large round bale of hay, to two or three steers or cows will last a few weeks.

Feeding round bales or square bales to your beef cattle is a personal choice, based on what is available and your storage capacity. Keep in mind that the quality of forage needed to feed a beef cow does not need to be legumes such as alfalfa. Bales of orchard grass or other forage will be just fine for a small herd of beef cattle.


How to Feed the Hay

You can put the hay directly on the ground for a simulated grazing style feeding. The obvious problem with this is waste from the animals walking on the hay and soiling parts of it with urine and manure. The hay being mashed into the ground by heavy cattle walking on it causes the ground to become softer and muddier.  

Consider using a round bale hay rack to contain the hay and keep it from being soiled and trampled.

Getting the heavy round bales of hay into the cow pasture or pen will require some mechanical assistance. A small farm tractor with a bucket can be used or a forklift. The bales can be pulled using chains.

Any way you look at the process of feeding cattle, knowing how much hay does a cow eat, will help you stay ahead of the demand. Keep a close eye on your storage, be aware of the weather and make sure your cattle are well fed. This will start you on the road to successfully raising a few head of beef cattle on your small farm or homestead.

Knowing how much hay does a cow eat, what is your preference for feeding them? Let us know in the comments below.

One thought on “How Much Hay Does a Cow Eat?”
  1. My dad is planning to buy some Irish Black Cattle for his small farm because he wants to start cattle farming after. I like that you said a 250 -pound calf would need seven pounds of hay per day, so he would need to stock up on forage to feed his new livestock. This would be great information for my dad because I doubt he’s knowledgeable about feeding cows since this would be his first time taking care of them. Thanks for this!

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