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Fence Line Hay Feeders: An Update on Research

By Matthew Webb, UT Extension Agent for Marshall County

Originally published in the May 2020 issue of the Tennessee Cattle Business

Nearly a year ago, I submitted an article in Tennessee Cattle Business about the potential advantages and drawbacks of fence line hay feeders. Five different hay feeder designs have been in use at the Middle Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center (MTREC) in Lewisburg for the last two winters. Producer interest has been astonishing with nearly 450 producers having stopped by and viewed the feeders within the last year. Additionally, a YouTube video that was produced by the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture has reached nearly 100,000 views. Though the response has been terrific, there are still questions about how to make these feeders more useful and efficient for cattle producers and meet the welfare needs of cattle. Here are observations and tips to consider before constructing fence line hay feeders.

Location - The location where a fence line hay feeder is the most critical part to the success in utilizing fence line hay feeders. Ideally, these feeders should be placed on flat, well-drained areas or ridge tops. Good road access to accommodate bringing hay to the feeder and reducing mud around the feeders is important. Additionally, feeders located close to hay storage or other facilities makes time management and animal movement more efficient. We timed and compared feeding two round rolls of hay into a fence line hay feeder system next to a field that was utilizing traditional hay rings. Because the operator had to get off the tractor multiple times to open and close gates, cut strings off hay bales and keep cattle from getting out, it took 35% more time to feed in the traditional hay rings versus those built in a fence line. More savings in time occurred when the fence line hay feeders were next to the hay storage and resulted in 57% less time to feed.

As an example of a less than ideal location, one pair of feeders at MTREC were built at the end of an existing catch pen. These set of feeders were located at the bottom of hill and experienced runoff issues. The major issue was that the runoff entered the feeding area from the side of the feeders. Essentially, this moisture was dammed up by the feeders resulting in conditions that made it difficult to get feed pads cleaned off. Also, more moisture was trapped on the inside of the feeders. It was not ideal for cattle to clean up a layer of hay in the bottom of the feeders. The other feeder designs that were located on ridge tops and flat areas have not experienced these issues.

Feed pads - The second critical component to the success of fence line hay feeders is the construction of the feed pad. These pads are important from an animal welfare standpoint as it allows cattle the opportunity to feed without standing in deep mud that can become prevalent around hay rings during winter feeding. Research has shown that cattle performance declines by 7% when mud is dewclaw deep and up to 35% when mud is belly deep. Feed pads need to be constructed to allow water to move off of the pad. To do this the slope should be greater than 2% and no more than 5%. When designing the feed pad, gate entry into the feed pad area needs to be considered to facilitate equipment movement for cleaning up around the feeders. Concrete bunkers arranged for manure storage adjacent to the feed pad area could be useful in some locations to store manure until it can be spread when the weather is more favorable.

In Lewisburg, one of the feeder designs placed on a concrete pad needed more slope to facilitate more water movement off of the pad. However, waste around this feeder did not build up to where it ever went above the dew claws throughout any point during the winter. The feed pad looked very muddy during the winter but in reality, was at the most, only 6 to 8 inches at the deepest. A problem with this particular feeder was equipment access. Gates need to be placed at the feed pad to allow for more timely clean up in spite of weather or ground conditions. Modifications are being made to remedy this issue at this site.

Inside the Feeders - An issue we have encountered with all the fence line feeders is the height of the area inside of the feeders. The inside of the feeders needs to be at least 6 inches higher than the surrounding feed pad. This allows less wicking of moisture from the feed pad up into the hay. Also, it reduces the amount of mud that is kicked up into the feeder as cattle walk up to the feeder. Cattle consume hay better when hay is dry and clean. On concrete pads, that will mean pouring additional concrete in the area inside the feeder. On feed pads constructed on gravel or chert feed pads, it would be necessary to square up the inside of the feeder using pressure treated 2” x 8” lumber and using a larger rock to help moisture drained away from the hay. The wicking up of moisture from the ground into the bottom of hay bales either during feeding or storage probably contributes to the greatest waste and rejection of hay by cattle than any other means. In hay ring systems in muddy fields, we have seen where hay that may be 12 inches from the ground consistently rejected by cattle due to the wicking of moisture. Additionally, this layer of hay if left continuously may actually harbor disease and pathogens that cause health issues for cattle in winter.

Width Spacing - Width spacing of the feeder is important for reducing hay waste. Most of the feeder designs at MTREC are two bale designs that are 8 feet wide and 12 feet long. The reason for this is that it forces the animal into a more natural feeding position as it stretches its neck for hay. Also, cattle will leave their heads in the feeder and if hay drops from their mouths, then that hay drops back into the feeder to be consumed later. A couple of the feeders at Lewisburg were built into an existing fence line and utilized the posts that were already present and are narrower than the recommended 8 feet width. Anything narrower than 8 feet results in the hay being pressed close to the panels. There is no room for cattle to put their head into the feeder until cattle consume the outside portions of the hay bale. Since cattle cannot put their heads inside the feeders, what they typically do is take a bite of hay, take a step back and any hay dropped from the mouth lands at their feet and is lost to trampling. The farm crew at MTREC feels like it would be better to make feeders 8 feet and 6 inches wide as the additional 6 inches gives a little more room for equipment if the feeder needs cleaning.

Feed Panels - Three of the fence line hay feeder designs at Lewisburg utilize metal feed panels and one design uses two pieces from a 3-piece hay ring. The feeders utilizing feed panels were all unskirted whereas the hay ring design was skirted. Early on we noticed that using a skirt resulted in a lot less hay loss. It was observed that on windy days the unskirted feed panels had hay loss from the hay that blew out of the feeder. Adding a skirt significantly reduced the amount of hay that was loss to trampling. Unskirted feed panels would have hay that was wasted 8 feet or more from the feeder whereas skirted feed panels had very little hay present outside of the feeders. Also, most of these feeders are 8 feet wide. As such, there is a 12 to 18-inch swath that is left in the feeder as hay is cleaned up. This is not a problem as this hay is pushed forward with the next bale of hay. However, if the feed panel on the end is unskirted then some of this hay will be pushed out of the feeders. It is recommended to pay the extra money and utilize skirts on feed panels or hay rings for these types of feeders.

Repairing Hay Feeding Areas - The last issue I bring up is repairing the hay feeding area. This is an issue whether we are talking about traditional hay feeding methods or fence line hay feeders. The advantage to fence line hay feeders is that the damaged area to repair is constricted to a small portion of the farm. If you are moving hay rings or unrolling hay this winter, you may have a larger area that needs to be repaired. Last year, with the help of the farm crew at MTREC, I set out a plot looking at various forage species and a chemical to find options for repairing hay feeding areas. The goals were quick ground cover, acceptable yield and weed control, namely pigweed. The plot area was rough-disked in late March and all plots were broadcast sown and sprayed on April 3rd. No fertilizer or lime was used.

Results from this plot yielded promising options for repairing hay feeding areas. Firstly, hay feeding areas can build up soil fertility quickly and there were major increases in soil pH, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium after hay feeding was over. Tall fescue and clover failed to establish and spring sowing is not recommended. Annual ryegrass and oats had quick ground cover and good early growth. However, these forages, when mixed with crabgrass, hampered the germination of crabgrass. Season long yield was good at 4 tons per acre but were lower than the best treatments. The best treatment was crabgrass (either sown or from the seedbank) with a residual chemical (GrazonNext) that yielded 6+ tons per acre by the end of the season. The residual chemical provided excellent weed control throughout the whole season. Without chemical, adding some kind of grass kept weeds at 14% or less. Pigweed was the major weed in the control and clover treatments. This plot work will be repeated. I think a potentially useful practice for repairing hay feeding areas would be to disk or scrap these areas, broadcast 3 to 5 lbs of crabgrass seed per acre and use an appropriate weed control chemical for pigweed and broadleaf weeds.

As cattle producers continue to look for ways to more efficiently feed cattle, I hope this update gives you some thoughts to consider if you decide to construct a fence line hay feeder on your farm. If you would like to visit the fence line hay feeders at the Middle Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center in Lewisburg, you can call the center to set up a time to visit. Also, we will be hosting the Beef Heifer Development School on October 22, 2020, and will provide an update on the feeders at that field day. More resources will be coming soon. There are on-farm demonstrations being planned in the southern Middle Tennessee area to gain more producer perspective into these hay feeding systems and there will be field days associated with those projects. The UTIA YouTube video mentioned earlier can be found at or by searching fence line feeders.

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