How to Feed and Use Poor Quality Hay

Brady Campbell, Program Coordinator, OSU Sheep Team
Rory Lewandowski, OSU Extension Educator ANR, Wayne County

Realities of hay produced in 2019:
Persistent and frequent rains not only led to delayed planting, but they also foiled the best-laid plans of sheep producers to take a timely first cut hay harvest. As a result, significant acres of first cut hay was baled in late June and even well into July. Overly mature is one way to describe this hay, but whatever the description, most producers recognize this hay is of poor quality. The big question many producers are facing now is how and when to best use this hay? Some have suggested the best use is bedding material. This is a valid consideration, particularly with high straw prices as hay has an absorbency factor (value used to describe the water holding capacity of a material) of 3.0, which is greater than that of wheat straw which sits at 2.1. It is important to note that the initial moisture content of these materials when tested was less than 10%. For those that baled hay that was wetter than it should have been, you can expect that the absorbency factor of your hay to be much lower. Unfortunately, using hay as bedding may not be an option as most producers need to use this hay as a forage feedstuff throughout the upcoming fall, winter, and spring. Therefore, the priority is to match as closely as possible forage quality to sheep nutrient requirements.

Understanding hay quality and matching it to nutrient requirements:
To get beyond general quality descriptions of poor, medium, or high quality hay, and talk actual nutrient levels requires a forage lab analysis. At a minimum, a hay test analysis should include the dry matter (DM) content, crude protein (CP) percentage, some form of energy measurement such as total digestible nutrient (TDN) or net energy (NE), and fiber content including acid detergent fiber (ADF) and neutral detergent fiber (NDF). These numbers are necessary to formulate rations, estimate animal performance, and estimate animal intake.

According to the latest version of the National Research Council (NRC) for small ruminants, crude protein and energy requirements differ based upon the stage of production. For the purpose of this article, we will use an average ewe weight of 154 lbs. (70 kg.). As an example, let us take this 154 lb. ewe and determine her nutritional needs during maintenance (i.e. dry, non-lactating) or the production stage where the ewe requires the least amount of protein and energy. A ewe of this size is expected to eat 1.68% of her body weight and has a NE requirement for maintenance of 2.25 Mcal/day. In doing the math, we can see that this ewe will eat approximately 2.5 lbs. of dry matter/day. Now let us compare and see how a poor quality hay crop can affect the management of these ewes.

In a recent OSU Extension Beef Team newsletter posting made on July 17, 2019, Stan Smith provided an analysis on a mixed grass first cut hay analysis from hay mowed on June 25 and baled on June 29 while getting lightly rained on once during that time period. The analysis was 6.85% CP, 38% TDN, 51.6% ADF, 65.5% NDF, and will provide 0.240 Mcal/lb. on a dry matter basis for net energy of maintenance (NEm). For those curious, NEm is the amount of energy required by an animal to maintain itself. It is also important to note that forage sources with a high NDF value negatively affect feed intake. High NDF values are associated with poorly digestible fiber, which contributes to diet bulk and decreases passage rate. To put this into perspective, Stan notes that the quality of this forage is similar to that of wheat straw. Those values may not be that unusual for this year’s first cut hay crop for many sheep producers.

So, now the question becomes, can this forage  be used as a feed source for my dry ewes? In general, the short answer is yes, but how useful this hay will be in the ration is yet to be determined. In order to understand what this hay crop alone has to offer to your dry ewe, let us do a bit more math to figure it out. According to the forage analysis provided by Mr. Smith, we know that the forage will provide 0.240 Mcal/lb. According to the NRC, ewes being fed at maintenance require 2.25 Mcal/day. Therefore, in order to achieve this requirement, a ewe would have to eat roughly 9.4 lbs. of feed/day. However, referring to our intake calculation above, our ewe will only consume 2.5 lbs. of dry matter/day. At this rate, using this hay crop as our only feed source, our ewe will only be able to consume 0.6 Mcal/day! Look at the deficit that we are facing in this situation (still in need of 1.65 Mcal/day). What is the solution? Here, we must provide supplemental energy!

Energy and protein supplements:
Thankfully, there are several supplemental feed options available to producers to help sustain their flocks in times of poor hay and forage availability. However, with the inability to plant crops this year, grain prices are projected to increase. In general, one of the cheapest energy supplements that we can provide to our sheep is whole shelled corn. As noted previously in the OSU Sheep Research summary – What Benefits are Gained by Processing Grain Fed to Sheep? – data shows that processing corn is not necessary when feeding sheep. At roughly $4.00 a bushel, this energy supplement is relatively inexpensive. Furthermore, small grains such as wheat, barley, and oats are able to provide sufficient amounts of  supplemental energy. However, be cautious when adding these small grains to your rations. For example, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs, producers can replace up to 35% – 40% of the grain in the ration with wheat. Substitution rates greater than this could result in digestive issues such as acidosis and or bloat. Additional options include soybean meal, distillers grains, and corn gluten meal. All three byproducts are excellent sources of additional protein as well as adequate sources of energy. Depending upon grain pricing this year, these byproducts may be the most cost effective option. Regardless of speculation, now is the time to talk with your local feed supplier to inquire about ingredient pricing and bulk discounts. Who knows, doing this now may be your saving grace this fall and winter if/when feed prices go through the roof!

With a better understanding of how to interpret forage analysis results, how to determine if the hay you are providing will meet animal needs, and some examples of supplemental feeds that can be used in order to fill in the energy gaps, the big question still remains – How do I handle this poor quality hay crop? Some have suggested selling it. That’s true, sell it, get it out of your way, but the reality is that someone will be feeding this! So, for those that intend to feed first cutting hay, what management practices should you be doing in order to make the most of this unfortunate situation.

Hay sampling/testing:
Regardless of the year, we always recommend getting a hay test. You don’t feed a complete mixed ration without knowing what in the product do you? The biggest challenge in getting reliable forage test results is representative sampling. At the lab level, a teaspoon or tablespoon of the forage submitted is representing multiple tons of hay. Good sampling procedure is necessary. Here are some general rules of thumb for forage sampling:

  • For dry hay, always use a forage probe to gather samples. Grabbing and pulling a sample from a hay bale will not provide you with a representative sample and test results will not accurately reflect the nutrient content of the bale.
  • Sample lots of hay separately. A lot of hay could be defined as hay of similar species content, harvested at a similar maturity and ideally from the same field and/or from fields harvested on the same day. First cutting hay in particular can have large changes in forage quality within even a 2-3 day span.
  • For small square bales, sample at least 20 separate bales within a lot. Use the forage probe to sample from the end of the bale, between the twine. Medium and large square/rectangular bales have a more uniform distribution of leaves and stems compared to small square bales so they can be sampled anywhere on the bale sides or ends.
  • For large round bales, sample at least 8-10 bales per lot of hay. Sample on the curved side of the bale, inserting the forage probe perpendicular to the side of the bale.

In all cases, more samples, when taken correctly, will increase the accuracy and reliability of the forage test results.

Hay placement:
In practice, on most farms, hay is fed by the last in, first out method. This year, do you want to feed first cutting hay as the last hay out of the barn? Referring  to our example above, probably not! Instead, we suggest that as you test lots of hay and get the lab results back, make the effort to rearrange your hay in storage to reflect when that hay matches up most closely to your flock nutrient requirement. For most, this means that first cut hay should be stacked and stored so that it is the first hay fed this fall as the pasture season ends. This effort could reduce supplementation costs, help keep your ewes in better body condition, and result in healthier lambs and better milking ewes at lambing time.

Hay processing:
Chopping or shredding hay is another strategy that improves the utilization of poor quality hay. Research conducted at The Ohio State University demonstrated that chopping hay increases intake because as particle size is decreased in the rumen, bacteria have more surface area to attach to, resulting in an increased rate of digestion. In this study, chopping hay allowed cows to eat 25%-30% more energy. While this may not be an option for everyone, weigh the cost of chopping hay in terms of equipment and labor against the cost of additional supplementation. For some small farms, the purchase of an industrial mulch shredder used by landscape companies may be a worthwhile investment. Don’t believe us? We encourage you to check out this article on the OSU Extension Beef Team newsletter as Dr. Francis Fluharty outlines the economic benefits of chopping forages.

In review, this article sheds some light on the realities that we can expect in the coming seasons. You have the tools available to you, which also includes folks here on the OSU Sheep Team, to help you manage and develop plans upon how to use your poor quality hays. The next step is for you to start asking those questions so we can continue to help.

Until then, happy shepherding!