While cost should be the primary factor, the correct answer depends on numerous factors. The list below helps illustrate these factors.
- Limited land resources to use for hay production
- Busy, limited time to devote to hay production
- Short on labor
- Must purchase hay equipment, update old equipment
- Set-up to handle by-product/alternative feeds
- Have access to reliable hay source
- Limited market for excess hay
- Unable to store and carryover hay with little waste
- Low acreage in hay that cannot self-support investment in equipment
- Land available for hay production
- Adequate time and flexible schedule to accommodate hay production
- Labor needs are adequate or labor can be sourced economically
- Some equipment costs can be shared with other enterprises
- Absolutely need to control harvest time and hay quality
- Lack of flexibility in feeding set-up, infrastructure is geared towards feeding hay
- Good demand for hay, potential diversification of farming business
- Can store excess hay, carryover hay with little waste
- Hay acreage supports equipment payment and regular update of equipment
Even in cases where some aspects of the farm may support growing your own hay, the opportunity cost is too high and buying hay can allow better use of time and equipment to focus on more profitable portions of the farming operation. Farming practices like spraying or fertilizing row crops may be more economically important when compared to baling hay.
If you are purchasing hay, the fertilizer value of hay is important to consider, realizing that if these nutrients are evenly spread over pastures during winter feeding, the benefit could be quite large to helping distribute additional nutrients to poorer fertility sections of a pasture. With a little thought and management when feeding hay, producers can build pastures up, reduce manure handling, and help make the most out of purchased hay.
Land price and availability are big constraints on herd expansion. Diverting hay ground to managed pastures can be beneficial. Managed pastures allow longer grazing seasons, can allow increased herd size or stocking rates, and can result in lower fertilizer and fuel needs to support the cattle operation. Illinois has abundant sources of feed, but acreage available for pasture is limited. Thus, would you be better off grazing your hay ground?