Skip to Content

Stop the Insanity! Putting Forage Quality First

Here is a great article from Carole Knight, Bulloch County Ag Agent:

Here we are once again at the beginning of another hay season. Hay producers anxiously sit at the starting line glued to their smartphone weather app or favorite tv weather-man waiting for that golden window to get their grass mowed, dried, baled and put up before a rain. Last year this process was not so easy. Many producers struggled with timing their hay cuttings to get up their grass without getting rained on and/or after being too mature. Because of this we had a lot of hay fed this winter that was too low in energy and digestibility and we paid the price. So let’s take a bit of advice from Albert Einstein who said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Let’s look at how we can put forage quality first.

So what defines a high quality forage? Forage that is highly digestible (i.e. high TDN) and that large amounts can be consumed (i.e. high DMI) is universally considered to be of high quality. There are numerous factors that contribute to forage quality. These factors are listed in the table below with their corresponding importance.


Importance Factor Recommendations
High Forage Maturity Cut the forage in the late vegetative or early reproductive stages of growth. Abide by the harvest for individual species.
High Forage Species Use a high-quality forage species that persists and can be produced economically in your environment. Species resistant to drought and temperature extremes should be
Moderate ForageUtilization Grazed forage is generally higher quality than conserved forage (i.e., hay, silage,etc.) because of animal selectivity and because fresh forage is generally higher in digestible nutrients. However, selectivity may reduce overall forage utilization compared to mechanically harvested systems.
Moderate Variety Use varieties that have proven to provide a good balance of high quality and high yields. Select disease- and insect-resistant varieties.
Moderate Storage Protect hay bales from rainfall and weathering during storage (e.g., barn, tarp, etc.). Properly pack and exclude oxygen from forage that is being ensiled.
Moderate Rain Damage Avoid cutting if significant rainfall (> 0.50 inches) is predicted during curing, but take care to avoid allowing forage to become overly mature.
Moderate Heat Damage Dry forage to the appropriate moisture for making hay (Round: 15%; Square: 18%)and store in a manner that allows adequate ventilation. Maintain integrity of oxygen barrier in silage storage.
Low Fertilization Fertilize based on soil test recommendations and at recommended times to sustainCP/mineral concentrations in the forage and to maximize vegetative mass in the standing forage.


Notice that forage maturity is of the most important factor affecting forage quality. Last year we sacrificed forage maturity because of frequent rainfall. Cuttings were put off for weeks and grasses were overly mature when cut. Young, leafy vegetative growth has a higher level of digestible nutrients and protein, which declines as the plants progress toward maturity. Older forage has fewer leaves, more stems, and a higher fiber content. More lignin is deposited as the plant matures. Lignin causes the plant to be more indigestible. Therefore, it is critical to harvest the crop whenever the forage reaches the recommended stage for harvest. Delaying a harvest beyond the recommended maturity stage will result in forage that is less digestible and much less capable of being consumed at a high rate of intake.

Forage Team Newsletter Volume 2-Issue 2 May2014

Other factors that contribute to forage quality include forage species. It is generally known that different forage species exhibit differences in digestibility and nutritive value. In general, grasses have much higher fiber content than legumes. As a result, legumes are generally more digestible than grasses. Similarly, cool season grasses are typically lower in fiber content and more digestible the warm season grasses. Forage quality potential can also differ between varieties of the same species. For example Tifton-85 bermuda grass results in a higher quality forage than Coastal.

Many management factors contribute to the production of high quality forage. Successfully harvesting hay is a highly detailed process that takes planning and attention to make sure that the forage collected is of the highest quality possible. However, the only way to actually know what the quality is to conduct a forage test. So, let’s stop the insanity, learn from the past, and plan for a profitable and productive hay season that focuses on putting up the highest quality forage possible. For more information on forage quality, refer to the UGA publication, “Understanding and Improving Forage Quality.”