If you have ever thumbed through the Market Bulletin hay ads, you’ve likely wondered what all the descriptions mean. The marketing tactics used can leave your head spinning. What makes something “horse quality,” and what makes the $9 square bale better than the $5 bale? If someone says their hay was “fertilized by UGA test recommendations” does that increase its quality?

Hay quality should be well-thought-out by livestock producers since forage is the foundation of any livestock feeding program. Paying close attention to forage selection can ensure healthy animals and minimize the costs of supplementation. Terms like “horse quality” often refer to the visual nature of the hay rather than its ability to meet the nutritional needs of an animal. After all, a pleasure horse will have vastly different nutritional requirements than a lactating mare or growing colt.

Putting all the buzzwords aside, here are a few factors that ACTUALLY influence hay quality:

1. Plant maturity at harvest is the most important factor determining quality. Early in the growing season, plants are in a vegetative stage with high concentrations of starch, sugar, proteins, and minerals. As the growing season advances, plants begin to develop elongated stems and seed heads with a higher proportion of fiber. Subsequently, digestibility decreases. Maturity also influences the amount an animal can eat. The first question I ask when inquiring about hay is how many days since it was last cut.

2. Forage species and variety also play large roles in the final quality of a hay product. Legumes generally produce more nutritious forage than grasses. Within a species, there may be large varietal differences. I can think of at least 5 different types of bermudagrass produced locally and I would expect different quality from each.

3. Bale Storage should never be overlooked when hay shopping. Bales should be protected from weather elements. Significant losses to substance and quality occur over time with weather exposure.

4. Good hay is relatively weed-free and free of foreign materials. Many weeds have a poor feed value and some can be toxic. I would rarely buy hay listed as “goat quality” without a lot of clarification. If the producer’s idea of goat quality is very weedy hay that only goats would potentially eat, you should probably move on. Aside from feed quality issues, you will also be introducing new weed seeds to your property. Other foreign objects in hay are unacceptable. Something like a piece of trash or wire picked up in a bale could puncture an animal’s gut.

5. Hay being free of potential toxins is also crucial for animal safety. Many toxic compounds become locked in when forage is harvested for hay. A common problem we test hay for is high nitrate content, particularly after drought stress. High moisture content in hay can lead to quality loss and mold danger. Various mold species can present huge safety concerns for livestock and should be avoided.

While fertilization should be important to a hay producer for growth, it should not be strongly considered by a hay buyer. More nitrogen fertilization can equate to higher protein in a sample but has not been found to increase digestibility. Overall, fertilizer has very little effect on hay quality.

The only way to match the energy and other nutritional factors to the right animals is to have a laboratory analysis of each batch of hay you purchase. Various stages of livestock production have different nutritional requirements. Lower-quality but safe hay can be used for animals in maintenance (ex: dry females and mature males not currently breeding). Growth, reproduction, and lactation will all require additional energy.

In some situations, a hay test may be impractical. At least some forage quality factors can be subjectively assessed by visual appraisal. If it smells musty or moldy, it probably is. The emergence of many seed heads on grass or flowers on legumes can indicate more mature hay. Particularly if the seed heads crumble easily. Larger stems in hay typically indicate a higher fiber content making it harder to digest and lower in calorie content. Hay with more leaf material present will contain higher nutrient content.

Feel free to contact your local Extension office if you’re new to buying hay. We can advise you on what is needed for the animals you have to feed and where you may be able to find it for sale.

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