Hay quality is impossible to know without a laboratory test. Looking at the visual characteristics and smelling the hay may give some information but it is still a rough idea. We had samples of different types and cuttings of hay, at the Farm Science Review, for people to look at and guess how they would line up compared to the laboratory analysis that had been performed on the samples. Very few people were successful. There are many factors that affect quality such as: variety of plants present, maturity when cut, moisture when baled, was it rained on, and how were the bales were stored to name a few.
This year there was so much rain that making good quality hay was a real challenge. Making assumptions about the quality can cost a lot more money than a forage test. If you assume your hay is better than it really is your animals are not going to receive the nutrition they need. For example, your cows may survive but their calves may not grow as well and they may take an extra cycle or 2 to breed back. An extra month to re-breed could amount to 60 pounds of calf the next year at weaning. With 10 cows that would be 600 pounds or around $840 which could easily pay for additional feed that could prevent the problem. On the other hand, you could assume your feed was poorer than it really is and end up spending more money than necessary purchasing supplements.
We have a hay sampling probe available and I am glad to work with anyone on sampling and submitting samples. When results are returned I will be glad to help with interpretation of results and balancing of feed rations. Most testing will cost around $25 – $35. The results you receive should more than pay for the cost. Feel free to call the Extension Office with any questions 740-670-5315.