Winter Feed Cost Comparison Calculator – Managing Variable Costs


Source: Beef Cattle Research Council,

Winter feed is the largest year-over-year variable cost faced by producers. A cow-calf operation feeding a predominantly purchased hay ration to 100 head for 180 days could pay $50,000 a year for winter feed. A 350-head herd fed for 150 days can cost over $150,000 a year for winter feed alone if good quality hay is priced conservatively at $143/tonne.

In October 2021, 80% of Canada’s agricultural land was considered to be in drought. Low soil moisture, crop yield losses, feed quality concerns and forage and grain deficits are a reality for many, and the cost of hay and other inputs have increased dramatically, putting the squeeze on many budgets.

Click to download [.xlsx file | 107kb]

While prices may be outside of one’s control, producers may be able to manage their budget by adjusting their rations and considering the use of more economical alternative feedstuffs. Stretching winter feeding budgets may present a challenge but one worth considering to help manage budgets not only for this winter season but in future years.

As winter rolls in, livestock feed supplies remain variable across Canada. Late summer rains have extended grazing in some regions. Other areas have or shared bumper supplies to carry through. Corn crops thrived under the hot summer days and nights leading to a record year for Canadian corn production.

Knowledge is power, so knowing your available feed supply and where it may fall short on nutrition is the first step to manage winter feeding for your herd. A feed test will point out where supplementary nutrients may be required. The next step is sourcing additional supplementary nutrients that are affordable and available to offer nutrient balance.

The Beef Cattle Research Council’s Winter Feed Cost Comparison Calculator (Click to download [.xlsx file | 107kb]) is a flexible decision-making tool that helps producers compare the cost-effectiveness of different, regionally available feed and alternatives. Two examples of how to use the calculator (one in the east the other in the west) are below and demonstrate the financial outcomes of switching between feed inputs this year.

Winter Feeding System Considerations

Keeping animals on pasture through the winter months may provide benefits in addition to cost savings. Studies have shown that animals wintered on pasture help promote forage yields the following spring because of added nutrient deposits through manure and urine. If pasture conditions are a concern, feeding cattle on pasture versus in a dry lot may still be beneficial as cattle play a significant role cycling nutrients into forage.

If feeding on pasture is not in the cards, managing wind and moisture in dry lot situations can reduce winter feed costs as well. The energy requirements of cattle kept in wet, windy conditions is much higher than animals kept in a dry, sheltered lot. For example, a thick-skinned, British breed kept in a dry, sheltered yard uses 11% less feed than the same cow with a wet coat, everything else constant. That can add up to significant savings over the winter.

Using the Winter Feed Cost Comparison Calculator: East and West Examples


The Maritimes and Quebec may have had bumper hay crops, but production has been mixed for farmers in Ontario. Producers in Ontario may be facing limited supplies or higher costs for good-quality hay this year. Higher than normal precipitation throughout September and October 2021 caused harvest delays and quality concerns with some hay getting rained on. Round bales (4X4) of grass hay are selling privately at an average CDN$43/bale, ranging anywhere between CDN$35 and CDN$50/bale, depending on the region. When hay is expensive, it may make sense to substitute some hay with grain, without compromising nutrient balance.

Corn can be used effectively to replace some hay in rations. A general rule of thumb is that one kg (2.2 lbs) of corn can replace two kgs (4.5 lbs) of hay, up to one-third of the ration. Actual amounts will vary depending on moisture content and gestation period and should be verified through feed testing and consulting a qualified nutritionist or ag extension staff.
weekly corn price in Ontario and Omaha in Canadian dollars






Uncertainty due to drought pushed Ontario corn prices to record highs around CDN$350/tonne in May through August 2021, but those prices have corrected sharply. At CDN$285/tonne in September, Ontario corn prices fell 18% from August. The September 2021 price was still 29% higher than September 2020 and 41% higher than the five-year average but comparable to the September 2012 (CDN$299/tonne) drought year in Eastern Canada.

Example 1 – Reducing Hay and Adding Corn in Ontario

Using the Winter Feed Cost Comparison Calculator, a predominantly hay ration for Ontario that assumes 30 lbs of grass hay fed with 0.22 lbs (100g) of mineral per animal per day was input as the baseline (column #1). It was assumed that a 1400 lb cow was fed a mid-pregnancy ration for 180 days in a 100-head herd with calving in the spring. In this scenario, the predominantly hay ration has a total winter feed cost of CDN$2.87 per head per day and costs $51,592 per year for the whole herd.

Scenario two (column #2) replaces 13 lbs of hay with 7.5 lbs of ground corn. When fed for 180 days, the replacement saves CDN$0.20 per head per day for a total savings of CDN$3,611 for the year.
estimated costs for winter cattle feeding based on local price and rations

alternative winter cattle feeding ration costs per animal per day and per herd

Ration examples and nutrient values sourced from “Alternative Forages and Sample Wintering Rations for Beef Cows” (Wand 2016).

2021 Alberta hay prices compared to three-year average






The price of hay (good quality, farm gate, over 50% alfalfa) moved sharply higher in Alberta in July 2021 amidst supply concerns. Prices have only climbed higher and had yet to correct by September 2021. In September 2021, the Alberta hay price was CDN$256/ton (CDN$232/tonne), 75% higher than 2020 and 86% higher than the five-year average. The prices reflect a real shortage of hay in the market this year.

The price of barley remains a record high as well. The Lethbridge barley price was CDN$408/tonne in the third quarter 2021; up from CDN$233/tonne in the third quarter of 2020 and the five-year average of CDN$226/tonne for the third quarter. Low production, low stock and low yields keep barley grain prices high. The shortage pushed the price of supplement pellets (32% protein) as well, up 23% this September from last year.

Reducing the amount of alfalfa hay and barley grain used in a ration in Alberta this year may lead to winter feed savings. While drought diminished crop and forage yields on the prairies by 30 to 40%, it also resulted in more salvage crops, such as greenfeed and canola. Salvage crops that were drought-stressed should be feed tested before use. As well, hot days and warm nights allowed corn to grow well in some regions of the west, supporting good corn yields and a corn silage supply. As shown in the example below, the use of cereal silage as well as greenfeed (where available) could lead to significant winter feed savings.

Example 2 – Reducing Hay and Barley Grain in Alberta

As in example 1, we downloaded the Winter Feed Cost Comparison Calculator and input several rations composed of predominantly hay, cereal silage, cereal greenfeed or cereal straw. We also assumed that each ration included 100 g (0.22 lbs) of mineral per animal per day. Most prices were entered per tonne, but the unit can be changed to per ton, as we did for hay (and can be changed to per lb as well). We assumed a 1400 lb cow was fed a mid-pregnancy ration for 180 days in a 200 head herd, calving in the spring.

The results clearly show that the greenfeed rations (columns #5 and #6) present the least-cost winter feed scenario for producers in Alberta this year. Rations that were high in hay (columns #1 and #2) and higher in barley grain or protein supplements (columns #7 and #8) were the most expensive. The range of difference between these scenarios is substantial, with total winter feed costs ranging between $47,987 and $96,392, depending on availability of winter feed. This shows the potential for small changes in winter feeding to make a big difference in costs this year.

estimated 2021 winter cattle feed costs in Alberta

estimated costs of alternative winter cattle feeding rations per animal and per herd for the season

Ration examples and nutrient values sourced from, “Beef Cow Rations and Winter Feeding Guidelines” (2021).

These savings and the marginal impact to your operation will vary depending on the quality and availability of feed in your area. While supply and demand are out of any one producer’s control, evaluating possibilities can help clarify the situation and provide potential solutions.

More information on drought relief resources for producers can be found here:

A list of BCRC blog posts related to drought can be found at:

Download Calculator:

Click to download [.xlsx file | 107kb]


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