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How to Select Quality Hay

How To Select Quality Hay

Hay is an important part of the diet for horses and livestock so it only makes sense to choose a high quality hay to feed to your animals.  There are two methods of hay evaluation:  visual and chemical.



Visual Evaluation

A visual evaluation can give you a rough estimate of the overall quality of the hay. There are several traits to consider when visually evaluating hay:

Color

Just because a bale of hay has a pretty, green color does not mean that it is high quality hay.  Color should be considered in your selection process but should not be the main factor in choosing hay.  A green color usually means that the hay contains a high level of protein and vitamins but that same bale of hay could also be high in nitrates and low in digestibility.  Hay that is a beige color is usually sun-bleached but could also be hay that was rained on prior to baling.  Rain can leach nutrients from hay and decrease its quality.  Dark brown hay (tobacco colored) is usually a sign that the hay has been heat damaged after being baled too moist or rained upon after baling.  Hay quality is seriously affected in hay that has been heat damaged and mold may be present.


Stage of Maturity at Harvest

As grass matures, the nutritional content of the grass begins to decrease.  The stems become tougher and more fibrous and protein and energy levels can decrease.  The presence of seedheads and course, thick stems can indicate that the grass was cut for hay at a mature stage of growth and is therefore a lower quality of hay.  Because the leaves contain most of the energy and protein the plant has to offer, hay that is leafy with very few seedheads is usually of higher quality.

Texture

Choose hay that has soft and flexible stems.  Tough, thick stems will not be as desirable to the animal and can also be an indication that the grass was overly mature when baled for hay.


Presence of Foreign Material

It is important to make sure that the hay is free from insects or trash.  Blister beetles can be toxic to horses and certain types of weeds can be toxic to horses and livestock.  It can be difficult to distinguish a toxic weed from a non-toxic weed once the plant has dried down and been baled with the hay.  Also, weeds that were not completely dried prior to baling can cause moldy areas within the bale.  It is best to just avoid hay that has weeds or trash in the bales.

Checking for Mold

Hay should not smell "old" or musty. It should have a fresh, clean smell.  Hay that smells bad was probably baled too wet or was stored improperly and has molded.  Hay should also not be dusty. Dusty hay can cause breathing problems in some animals.  In many cases, the dust is actually mold spores.  To distinguish between dusty hay and moldy hay, shake out a flake of hay from the bale.  If the dust appears as a grayish-white color, it's mold.  Also, if the flakes are hard or stick together in clumps, the bale has molded.

Chemical Evaluation

A chemical evaluation can give a much more accurate impression of hay quality.  It is recommended that all hay be tested prior to feeding to ensure that it is safe and that adequate nutrients are being provided to the animals being fed.

Who tests the hay?

Hay samples are tested in Raleigh by the North Carolina Farm Feed Testing Service, which is a cooperative effort of the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and N.C. Cooperative Extension.  Samples can be sent to the laboratory from any of the county offices of N.C. Cooperative Extension.  A full analysis of the hay will cost $10 per sample.  There is no charge to test for nitrates only.  Test results will usually be available in 7-10 business days.

The following is a sample feed analysis report:

SAMPLE NUMBER
DESCRIPTION
FORAGE TYPE
FORAGE FORM
MATURITY STAGE

LABORATORY
RESULTS

Dry Matter, %
Crude Protein, %
Unavailable Protein, %
Adjusted Crude Protein, %
Acid Detergent Fiber, %
TDN, %
NE(lactation) Moal./lb.
Calcium, %
Phosphorus, %
Sodium, %
Magnesium, %
Sulfur, %
Potassium, %
Copper, ppm
Iron, ppm
Manganese, ppm
Zino, ppm
Nitrate Ion, %

: 7777
: SAMPLE 1
: GRASS FORAGE
: HAY
: VEGATATIVE, NO HEADS

AS SAMPLED
BASIS

80.77
13.76
1.91
13.22
30.27
50.61
0.42
0.51
0.38
0.05
0.23
0.16
2.36
8.
129.
53.
65.
1.41

DRY MATTER
BASIS
 

17.03
2.36
16.37
37.48
62.66
0.52
0.63
0.46
0.06
0.29
0.20
2.93
10.
159.
66.
80.
1.74

What do the test results mean?

The test report will have two columns of values: As Submitted Basis and Dry Matter Basis.    The values in the Dry Matter Basis column are the ones that you will focus on when reading a test report.  These values reflect the results of the analysis once all of the water was removed from the hay sample and will allow you to compare the quality of different feedstuffs more equally.

The first value to examine on the report is the percentage of Crude Protein (CP).  In our sample test report for a grass hay, the crude protein of this particular batch was 17.03%.   Grass hays, such as bermudagrass or timothy,  are typically lower in protein than legume hays, such as alfalfa.

Next, we'll examine the digestibility of the hay.  Two values are typically used for this.  In horses, focus on the Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) value.  As the ADF value increases, the digestibility and quality of the hay decreases.  In our sample report, the ADF value for this hay was 37.48%.

If we're dealing with ruminants (cattle, sheep, or goats), we'll typically use the value for Total
Digestible Nutrients
(TDN).  As TDN increases, hay quality increases.  In our sample, the TDN is 66.62%.

To determine what the CP, ADF, and TDN values mean in terms of hay quality, look at Table 1 for ruminants and Table 2 for horses listed below.  There you'll find indicators of high, average, or low quality hays based on whether the hay is a legume, a grass/legume mixture, or a pure grass hay.

Another very important value to consider on the test report is the percent Nitrate Ion.  Ideally, we would like for this value to be zero but hay that contains a small percentage of the nitrate ion can still be fed safely as long as the value doesn't exceed a certain level.  You will find more information on feeding high nitrate hay in the Nitrates 101 chapter of this booklet.

One last value that may be of importance to some horse owners is Non-structural Carbohydrates
(NSC)
.  This value reflects the "sugar" content of the hay and is of importance to horses who are prone to founder or have metabolic disorders.  For these horses, a lower NSC value is desired.  Hays that test higher in NSCs can be soaked in water prior to feeding to lower the NSC content and make the hay more suitable for these horses.

Table 1.  Forage quality indicators for ruminants

Forage Type  High  Quality  Average  Quality  Low  Quality
Legumes
(e.g. alfalfa)
CP        18-23%
TDN      60-65%
CP        15-17%
TDN      55-59%
CP      below 15%
TDN    below 55%
Grass/Legumes
(e.g. fescue/clover)
CP        15-18%
TDN      59-62%
CP        11-14%
TDN      55-58%
CP      below 11%
TDN    below 55%
Grass
(e.g. bermudagrass
CP        12-14%
TDN      58-65%
CP         9-11%
TDN      54-57%
CP      below 9%
TDN    below 54%


Table 2.  Forage quality indicators for horses

Forage Type  High  Quality  Average  Quality  Low  Quality
Legumes
(e.g. alfalfa)
CP        18-23%
ADF      below 30%
CP        15-17%
ADF      30-37%
CP      below 15%
ADF    above 37%
Grass/Legumes
(e.g. fescue/clover)
CP        15-18%
ADF      below 30%
CP        10-14%
ADF      30-37%
CP      below 10%
ADF    above 37%
Grass
(e.g. bermudagrass)
CP        12-14%
ADF      below 30%
CP         8-11%
ADF      30-37%
CP      below 8%
ADF    above 37%

 


Contact Information

E-mail: Michelle Shooter

Mailing Address:

P. O. Box 2280

Lumberton, NC 28359-2280

Phone: 910-671-3276

Fax: 910-671-6278


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