How Do I Select Quality Hay

— Written By Phil Rucker and last updated by
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Winter is fast approaching and that means the beginning of hay feed season for our livestock. Hay is an important part of the diet for most livestock so it only makes sense to choose a high quality hay to feed to your animals. There are two methods of hay evaluation: chemical and visual

A chemical evaluation (laboratory analysis) can give a much more accurate evaluation of hay quality. It is recommended that all hay be tested prior to feeding to ensure that it is safe and that adequate nutrients are being provided to the animals being fed.

Who tests the hay? Hay samples are tested in Raleigh by the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Samples can be sent to the laboratory from any of the county offices of N.C. Cooperative Extension. A full analysis of the hay will cost $10 per sample. There is no charge to test for nitrates only. Test results are usually available in 7-10 business days. Private labs are an option as well. The analysis will usually cost more than a state supported lab, but you can usually test for more components at a private lab. 

In lieu of or in addition to a chemical evaluation, a visual evaluation can give you a rough estimate of the overall quality of the hay. There are several traits to consider when visually evaluating hay.

Color: Just because a bale of hay has a pretty, green color does not mean that it is high quality hay. A green color could mean the hay contains a high level of protein and vitamins but might be hiding some issues with the hay. Beige color hay might be sun-bleached or it was rained on prior to baling. Rain leaches nutrients and decrease quality. Dark brown hay could mean heat damage after being baled too moist. Hay quality is usually low in hay that has been heat damaged and mold may be present.

Stage of Maturity at Harvest: As grass matures, the nutritional content of the grass begins to decrease. The stems become tougher and more fibrous and protein and energy levels can decrease. The presence of ripe seedheads and course, thick stems can indicate that the grass was cut for hay at a mature stage of growth and is therefore a lower quality of hay. Because the leaves contain most of the energy and protein the plant has to offer, hay that is leafy with very few seedheads (or immature, soft seedheads) is usually of higher quality. A soft texture usually means the hay is more palatable and less risk of a picky eater turning up their nose at the hay.

 Presence of Foreign Material: Make sure the hay is free from insects, weeds or trash. Some insects and weeds can be toxic to horses and livestock. Weeds and trash (paper, cups, cans, etc.) are not what you want to pay for. Try to avoid hay that has trash or excess weeds in the bales.

Checking for Mold: Hay should not smell musty. It should have a fresh, clean smell. Hay that smells bad could potentially have some mold. Hay should not be dusty which can cause breathing problems in some animals. Shake out a flake of hay from the bale. If the dust appears as a grayish-white color, or if the flakes are hard or stick together, it could be mold.

Pasture Management Tips

This year’s inconsistent weather (very wet, then very dry, then wet again) has affected many pastures and hay fields. Even with adequate rainfall, stunted grass can make a temporary recovery but will probably struggle to be as productive as normal. When grass is stressed, it needs a little more TLC to be the productive forage you need. Be prepared to give your grass what it needs to recover and produce quality forage in the future. Take the time to soil test your fields so you will know what fertilizers will give you the most bang for your buck. Don’t look at fertilizer as an expense but more as an investment in the future of your grass land. Without the proper nutrients, grass will not be as productive and applying proper nutrients this coming year will be very important to help your forage try to recover as well as be productive. At the very least, apply the recommended lime to correct pH problems so whatever nutrients are in the soil can be better utilized by the plant. A Soil Test will help you apply what the forage needs, in proper amounts so you will spend your fertilizer dollar more wisely. Soil tests are free through the NCDA&CS lab until about Thanksgiving. Then soil tests are $4 per sample. Come by the office to get your soil test boxes and help your pastures work more efficiently for you.

It is in your best interest to make an honest evaluation of the amount of grass you have, as well as the number and size of livestock you have. Then you can more accurately calculate a good estimate of how long your livestock can graze before they start to compromise the forage by overgrazing. Overgrazing is one of the worst things you can let happen to your pastures. This weakens the stand of grass and we all know what happens to weak grass: WEEDS, WEEDS and more WEEDS. Make a grazing plan to try to keep your livestock from overgrazing. If not, when spring comes, your grass might get a slow start and that’s never a good thing.

Remember, we are all GRASS FARMERS first and then we have livestock to consume the grass we grow. With quality grass, you have more options to feed your livestock in a cost effective and natural way. When the grass suffers, then you have to spend money to get hay, feed and other supplements.

Sound management will help you keep a strong stand of grass that will work for you for years. With a few management practices, pastures and hay land can be very productive, providing abundant quality forage to our livestock. Isn’t that what we want? Contact N.C. Cooperative Extension, Yadkin County Center, 336-849-7908 if you need additional information. Cooperative Extension is an equal opportunity provider.

As seen in the Yadkin Ripple