Hay Quality Indicators

Christine Gelley, OSU Extension Educator ANR, Noble County

The drastic swing in temperatures from one day to the next last week should remind us all that it truly is autumn and that winter is coming. The challenges of the 2019 forage production season continue to add up. With drought conditions across the state for the past two months, what was too lush for too long, is now crunchy and brown. Some producers are already feeding hay to their livestock, some are hoping that the forage they have stockpiled for late-fall/winter grazing will pay off. Hopefully it will with a little rain.

We ended 2018 with the lowest stock of stored forages since 2012 and the fourth lowest in the past 70 years. I don’t think 2019 has been much help. Quality forage is in short supply and high demand. Which means all forage has increased in monetary value by the ton.

If you are a hay marketer, this sounds positive. The price is up and your input costs stay relatively flat year to year, factoring in land value, equipment, fuel, and labor. But, is it positive? Maybe, if you don’t need to keep any hay for yourself.

Let’s look at an example:

Let’s say in 2016, you had 100 (800 lb.) round bales to sell (40 tons of hay). Quality was good and demand was moderate. You sold them all at a price of $40 a bale. You made a total of $4,000 (not factoring in the costs of production), which was equal to $100 per ton.

In 2019, you needed to keep the best 50 of those 100 bales you typically sell for your own livestock, so you had 20 tons to sell. Due to the market demands, the hay price is up. You sell all 50 fair quality bales for $80 each. You still make $4000, at a value of $200/T.

Did you really make more money? No.

On the flip side, if you were the buyer of this hay in 2016 and 2019, you took home half the hay this year, at lower quality, for twice the price.

Now, this example was constructed to make the math as easy as possible. My point here is that no matter how you flip the coin in this case, no one “wins” the toss.

Given the situation we face, it becomes even more important that both hay marketers and buyers pay attention to hay quality to settle on a fair price and good nutritional value for the animals. The best way to do this is with a hay test from a laboratory. The lab will test the sample for nutritional parameters like protein, fiber, and digestibility. Knowing these values allows you to price the forage and determine supplementation needs. This is the single best way to evaluate hay quality.

You can learn about how to take and evaluate a hay sample by watching the June 2019 edition of Forage Focus or by contacting your OSU Extension Office.

You can evaluate other factors without a hay test. None of them are guarantees of quality, but they are indicators of quality. Consider these eight factors when buying or selling hay.

  1. Leafiness- Leaves are the most digestible portion of the plant, both for grasses and legumes. Leaves should be plentiful and attached to the stems.
  2. Maturity- This is the number one factor that impacts forage quality. As plants mature, fiber content increases and digestibility decreases. Over mature hay is stemy and full of seed.
  3. Odor- Bad smells indicate problems like spoilage and mold growth. Animals will refuse hay that smells bad. Bad hay may smell sour, musty, be dusty, or damp.
  4. Color- Color is not a reliable indicator of quality. Green hay is usually a sign of good curing conditions. But, assuming that green hay is better than brown hay, could be wrong.
  5. Softness- The texture of the hay is important for animal intake. Pokey or brittle hay will decrease intake. Look for weeds that have thorns, spines, or awns.
  6. Purity- Pure stands of the same species, or collection of species are important for marketing purposes. Pure hay is easier to fit into a feed program and to describe for sale.
  7. Bale Condition- Bales should be uniform size and shape for easier storage. Wrapped bales should be adequately covered for protection from the weather and to prevent spoilage.
  8. Penalties- Contaminants in hay may include poisonous weeds, mold, dirt, and trash. These greatly reduce the quality and value of the hay.

If you have not secured a supply of hay for the coming winter and you are in need, sooner is better than later to make a deal. If you are on a quest for perfection, you will likely be disappointed. So, have a plan in place to provide supplemental feed if the hay you have does not meet your expectations.