Hay Quality Factors

— Written By and last updated by Jill Cofer
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Round hay bale in fieldThere are many factors to gauging hay quality. Two of the biggest factors include knowing different forages have different nutrient levels and that quality is impacted depending on the stage of maturity when cut and how it is stored.

When deciding when to cut hay, producers have two factors to consider, quality, and yield. When grasses are in the early stage of maturity, plants have higher nutrients contents, but they do not have a lot of yield. On the other hand, when grass is later in maturity, it yields more, but as it moves into the reproductive stage it gets “stemy” and starts producing seed heads, making the nutrient content lower. Matching these two factors are critical when making hay and the best time to mow hay is right before it starts to produce seed heads.

One of the biggest nutrient loss in hay is how it is stored after its baled. Hay needs to be stored in a dry and well-ventilated area for minimal nutrient loss. The following is research found data on nutrient loss through common hay storage methods.

  • Ground contact, no cover – 37% loss
  • No ground contact, no cover – 29% loss
  • Ground contact with cover – 29% loss
  • Ground contact and net wrapped – 19% loss
  • No ground contact in a hay barn – 6% loss

The majority of nutrient loss is due to ground contact and hay exposed to outside elements will have anywhere from at least 4-6 inches of ruined hay. Even at 4 inches thick around the outside of a bale is quite a bit of hay that is wasted. When looking at the numbers of percent nutrient loss from uncovered hay to hay stored in a barn, there is nearly a 30-35 percent difference in nutrients. Pole sheds, barns, or tarps do cost money, but you will save money in the long run by taking the extra steps and protecting hay from outside elements.

Nutrient values can vary from field to field and from each cutting on the same field. That is why it is important to take hay samples and use those forage analysis as a tool in your toolbox in your feeding programs. The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services analyses hay and fresh forage samples at $10 a sample. At the N.C. Cooperative Extension of Randolph County offices in Asheboro, a hay probe is available to loan with a refundable deposit. Livestock Agent Adam Lawing can help take the sample and analyze the results. He has seen the crude protein (CP) levels in hay samples range from 14% down to 6% CP. The lower percentage doesn’t necessarily mean the hay is bad; the analysis is a tool. Livestock at different production levels have different nutrient requirements. When looking at cattle, a dry, non-lactating cow only needs 7.5% (CP), while a lactating cow needs 11% CP. Higher quality hay can be used to feed livestock that are in need that extra nutrients and lower quality hay can be used to feed animals that do not need the extra nutrients. Utilizing forage samples can help save money on feed costs by matching hay to livestock’s different production cycles.

NC State Extension office is always looking for more ways to help clients in the county, including a hay directory for people buying and selling hay. See the link at the left for more information.