Limit Feeding with a Bale Feeder, Bunk and a Bucket

Limit Feeding with a Bale Feeder, Bunk and a Bucket

Confined feeding cows
When the availability of hay is limited by both quantity and quality, the feeding of grain and co-products in a bunk can be utilized to provide the additional protein and energy needed to meet cow nutrient needs. Photo credit Karla Wilkie.

Drought conditions are challenging producers to be creative as they think about options for maintaining the cowherd through the summer with limited summer pasture forage projected to be available.  Several research studies conducted at the University of Nebraska have shown that cows can be managed effectively utilizing a limit fed ration. In a limit fed ration, the nutrient requirements of cattle are met with a diet that is less than the actual amount of dry matter that the cattle would eat if they had full access to all they could eat. Typically, these are total mixed rations, fed with a feed truck or wagon, consisting of limited amounts of forage and combined with protein and energy dense feed resources such as distillers grains, corn, corn silage, beet pulp, soy hull pellets, etc.

For producers without access to a feed wagon, limit feeding can still be an option. Research at the University of Illinois1 and the University of Minnesota2 has shown that cows can be given timed access to hay bales in feeders and limit intake as well as waste.  In the University of Illinois study, cows were restricted to as little as 3 hours of access to a bale feeder consisting of a high-quality hay. Cows restricted to 3 hours of access consumed 17 lbs. of dry matter of hay per day while cows with 24-hour access consumed 34 lbs. of hay per day on a dry matter basis. Total hay waste was reduced significantly in both research studies when cows were limited to 14 hours or less to the bale feeders. In these studies, hay quality was more than adequate to meet cow nutrition requirements. Testing hay quality and knowing cattle nutrient requirements is important when utilizing this method of limited hay feeding. 

The type of bale feeder used can also significantly impact the amount of hay waste. Research conducted by Oklahoma State University3 showed that bale ring feeder types can significantly impact the amount of hay lost to trampling and fouling. Researchers examined four bale feeder designs: a conventional open-bottom steel ring, a sheeted-bottom steel ring, a polyethylene pipe ring, and a modified cone feeder with a sheeted bottom. Hay waste was the lowest for the cone feeder at 5.3%. The polyethylene feeder and the open-bottom steel ring feeder had the highest percentage of waste at 21% and 20.5% respectively. The sheeted-bottom feeder was intermediate, with a waste level of 13%.  The combination of timed access to hay and use of bale ring feeders that reduce hay waste can stretch limited hay supplies.

When the availability of hay is limited by both quantity and quality, the feeding of grain and co-products in a bunk can be utilized to provide the additional protein and energy needed to meet cow nutrient needs.  A research study conducted by Ohio State University4 showed mature cows could be fed a diet consisting of limit-fed corn as an alternative to hay when cows were in late gestation and early lactation. Cows were either fed around 11 pounds of whole shelled corn, 2.5 pounds of a pelleted supplement, and 2 pounds of hay (dry matter basis) or offered hay and a salt and mineral mix free choice from November to April. Hay offered free choice was predominantly first-cutting orchardgrass testing around 72% neutral detergent fiber (NDF) and 9.5% crude protein (CP). Cows in this study fed free choice hay ate twice as much feed as the limit fed diet. Cows on the limit-fed corn-based diet experienced no detrimental effects on subsequent performance, conception rates or on calf weaning weight when the limit-fed period was followed by summer grazing on pasture.

For producers without a feed truck or wagon, consider the following management practices when utilizing limit feeding.  

  1. Work with Nebraska Extension Beef Educators and Specialists to develop a ration that will meet protein and energy requirements. The ration will likely need to be adjusted throughout the feeding period to meet both cow and calf nutrition needs. When cows are adjusting to a limit fed, protein and energy dense diet, transition cattle to the diet over a week to ten-day period. Gradually increase the protein and energy dense feedstuffs such as corn or co-products and reduce hay to desired levels. This will help cows transition to the new ration and minimize digestive upsets.
  2. Give at least 30-inches of bunk space per cow when limit feeding an energy and protein dense diet. When limiting access to hay, provide adequate space so that all cows can comfortably eat around bale feeders at the same time. Most bale rings provide enough space for 10 cows to eat at the same time. Electric fence can be utilized as a tool with existing facilities to separate cows from a feeding area.   Electric fence can also be used as a “feed bunk” where hay or feed can be spread out and fed under an electrified wire. This gives cattle access to the feed but keeps them from trampling on and fouling it.   
  3. Provide creep access for calves to hay and supplement to ensure they are getting adequate protein and energy to meet their nutritional needs. Make sure they also have ready access to water. A separate watering tank that is set up just for calves can be beneficial. 
  4. Utilize a vitamin and mineral supplement that complements feeds being utilized. Cows with limited access to hay are prone to consume more free choice mineral than needed. Salt can be added to the mineral to reduce mineral intake to desired levels. If feed or supplement is going to be limit fed in a bunk, consider delivering the mineral with it.
  5. Consider the use of the ionophore monensin to improve feed efficiency.
  6. Divide cows into groups based on age and pecking order to ensure all cows are getting their fair share of the feed. Monitor body condition scores of cows and adjust groups as needed to make sure thin and timid cows are getting access to the feed they need.
  7. Cows will often act hungry when receiving a limit fed diet, even though the ration is meeting the cow’s nutrition requirements. Feeding cows at consistent times each day will help reduce discontented behavior.
  8. If new feeding areas are going to be created or greater numbers of cattle are going to be fed than normal because of drought conditions, see the website article Siting Considerations and Environmental Management for Temporary Feeding Areas for information on being in compliance with animal feeding regulations.

Limit feeding of cows in a dry lot can be accomplished without needing to feed a total mixed ration. For some producers, a combination of limiting access to hay and limit feeding a protein and energy dense diet in a bunk may be the best option for meeting cow nutrient requirements. This method allows for the direct, daily feeding of a vitamin and mineral package as well as the ionophore monensin. This approach can help ensure cattle are consuming vitamins and minerals at desired levels and meets the label needs for the feeding of monensin, which requires that it be delivered daily with at least one pound of feed per head per day. With some creativity and planning, producers can often use existing equipment and resources in a way to limit feed and meet cow nutrition needs without the use of a feed truck or wagon.

For more information on managing cow-calf pairs in a dry lot see the Dry lot Beef Cow/Calf Enterprise page at the website.


1Miller, A. J., D. B. Faulkner, T. C. Cunningham, and J. M. Dahlquist. 2007. Restricting time of access to large round bales of hay affects hay waste and cow performance. Prof. Anim. Sci. 23:366-372.

2Jaderborg, J.P., S.L. Bird, G.I. Crawford, R.S. Walker, A. DiCostanzo. 2021 Influence of hay feeding method, supplement moisture, or access time on intake and waste by beef cows, Transl. Anim. Sci. Volume 5, Issue 2, txab069,

3Austin J. S., M.F. Moore, C.P. McMurphy, G.L. Mourer, S.K. Linneen, M.A. Brown, C.J. Richards, D.L. Lalman. 2021. Effects of bale feeder design on hay waste, intake, and apparent diet digestibility in gestating beef cows, Transl. Anim. Sci. Volume 5, Issue 3,  txab104,

4Loerch, Steven. 1996. Limit-feeding corn as an alternative to hay for gestating beef cows. J. Anim. Sci. 74: 1211-1216.

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