Washington State University

Small Farms Team

What to Look for When Buying Hay

Gary Fredricks, Dairy and Livestock Extension Agent, Clark and Cowlitz Counties
207 4th Avenue North, Kelso, WA 98626-4124, (360) 577-3014, garyf@wsu.edu

Assessing Forage Quality

How can you tell if you're buying good hay? There are several things that you can visibly look for when inspecting the hay that relate to quality, including:


Color

The first thing to notice when inspecting the hay is its color. Good quality hay will have a nice green color that is neither yellow nor brown. Good hay color tends to be associated with higher vitamin, protein, and mineral levels. An overall brown color indicates more mature hay and a corresponding lower quality.

Maturity

Before examining the hay bale for maturity, it is necessary to first understand what plant maturity means in terms of forage quality. Grass and legume plants are cut to make hay, and plants are made up of leaves and stems. The leaf contains most of the plant protein and the highly digestible fiber that is easily converted to energy. The young leaf is soft and flexible, and is low in cellulose. Cellulose is part of the cell well and provides rigidity to the cell structure. The stem is mostly composed of cellulose because it needs to be more rigid to allow the plant to grow upright. Cellulose is low in energy and is not broken down easily in the animal’s digestive system. After a plant emerges and begins to grow, the weight of the leaf as a percentage of the total plant is high, while the percentage of stem is low. As the plant matures, the percentage of leaves decreases while the percentage of stems increases. Thus, the more mature the plant, the lower the percentage of leaves and the lower the protein and energy contained in the whole plant.

Number of Leaves vs. Stems

When you evaluate the hay for maturity, look for the number of leaves versus stems. As explained above, you want to see more leaves than stems. As the number of stems increases, the desirability of the hay goes down. Also note that the longer the leaf length, the more mature the hay and the lower its quality. In addition, the presence of seed heads in the bale indicates a very mature hay with lower energy and protein values.

Number of Weeds or Foreign Material

Be sure to look for weeds in the hay. You would hope that the hay would not contain any weeds and you should not see any present. Weeds have very little nutritive value and are low in energy and protein content. The more weeds that are in the hay, the lower the quality of the hay. Some weeds are poisonous and can present a health danger to the animal consuming the hay. Toxicity depends on the type of weed, amount present in the hay, and how much is eaten over what period of time.

Moisture Content

Moisture content is always a concern when looking at baled hay. If hay is baled when it is still wet, you may not see the problem on the outside of the bale. However, inside the bale, the moisture and darkness will enable mold to grow, and mold raises three concerns. First, as mold grows it feeds on the hay’s nutrients, lowering the protein and energy content of the hay. Second, as mold grows it can release toxins (poisons) into the hay. These toxins can cause some digestive problems in your animals when they eat the hay, and can cause pregnant does to abort. Thus, moldy hay has a lower feed value and can cause health problems. The third problem is that moldy hay generates heat and can become combustible. Unfortunately, the only way to find out if hay is moldy is to break into a bale.

Palatability

Palatability describes the animal’s desire to eat the hay and it is like describing the difference between spinach and pizza for a teenager. The spinach has more nutritional value, but the pizza gets eaten first. Good feed quality doesn’t mean much when your animals won’t eat the hay. Younger, leafier hays which are higher in protein and energy do tend to be much more palatable. Goats are browsers and eat all types of hay. They will certainly prefer younger, more leafy hay rather than old and more mature.

Photo of goats eating hay

Measuring Forage Quality

To measure hay quality, have a sample analyzed at a commercial laboratory. Ask the laboratory to analyze the % dry matter, CP (Crude Protein), ADF (Acid Detergent Fiber), NDF (Neutral Detergent Fiber), and mineral content. Percent dry matter tells you how much water is in the hay. Good quality hay should be more than 90% dry matter, which means that moisture should be less than 10%. If dry matter is less than 90%, expect problems with forage quality and long-term storage as the hay will likely mold in a few months. CP is an estimate of the amount of protein in the hay and should match the animal’s dietary needs. Extra protein is not easily converted to energy; it is not stored by the animal, and is lost in the urine. Thus if your animal needs 12% CP and your hay is 20% CP, the excess protein is helping the grass to grow instead of your animal. NDF is a measure of plant fiber content and is closely associated with feed intake. ADF is a measure of cell wall content, which is mostly cellulose, and is related to feed digestibility (how much of the feed is broken down within the animal). As the plant matures, NDF and ADF values increase as the amount of cellulose content in the plant increases, indicating poorer quality hay. A good hay quality will have an NDF value of 50% or lower and an ADF value of 40% or lower.

Summary

The bottom line regarding hay quality is that you can tell a lot about the hay by looking at it. Buying poor quality hay is not a good bargain. Saving a couple of dollars when you buy hay means you will need to feed more grain to compensate for the poor feed quality of the hay, and feeding grain is more expensive than feeding hay. Feeding high quality hay saves you money in the long run and is worth the investment. By learning how to visually assess good quality hay, you can help your animals to be healthier and more fit, and you will save your farm money.

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