Not all hay is equal; get it tested

Tony Nye - OSU Extension

I am sure you have heard the saying, “What goes up must come down.” It is a pretty true statement, but does it work in reverse? If it is already down, can it go up?

I’d like to know because I am pretty much in favor of the thermometer going up. I just hope the weatherman has his story straight and we see warmer days real soon.

When it comes to cold and livestock, feed and extra care is important to the well-being of each animal.

Many of us have cattle, goats, sheep, and horses, and keeping plenty of hay in front of them is a way to be sure they have a little extra at all times and is a good portion of their daily ration.

It is likely that grain is also part of that daily ration. How do you know how much hay, grain, and pasture they need?

No one wants to leave their animals hungry. In addition, we do not want to waste time or money with unnecessary feeding.

Figuring out the balance can seem like a guessing game, but the place to start is with a hay test.

Remember, not all hay is created equal.

Testing the hay you are feeding is well worth the price of sample analysis. Collecting a sample is not complicated and typically results are available from the lab within two weeks.

Whoever you choose to go through, be sure to select the analysis package that will give you the detailed results you desire. The package that costs the least will probably still leave you guessing.

A typical suggestion is to select a test that will give you values for moisture, crude protein (CP), acid detergent fiber (ADF), neutral detergent fiber (NDF), total digestible nutrients (TDN), and Relative Feed Value (RFV). Once you receive the results of your analysis, the challenge of interpreting the values arises. How do you know what values are good or bad?

Your hay test results will list values on a dry matter (DM) and an as-fed basis. Nutrients will appear to be higher for DM basis, because all the remaining water (% moisture) in the hay has been factored out.

For CP, values of 8% or greater are desired. For ADF, lower is better. Increased ADF values equal decreased digestibility. Neutral detergent fiber is the amount of total fiber in the sample, which is typically above 60% for grasses and above 45% for legumes. As NDF increases, animal intake generally decreases.

For TDN and RFV, the greater the values, the more desirable the forage. These values are useful for comparing your forage to other feeds available on the market.

Once you have these values compiled you can start formulating rations based on nutritional values of the hay. It is best to work with your feed dealer to fine tune nutrition needs for your animals.

Remember I said not all hay is created equal. Hay tests may not reveal ideal results and they can vary drastically between cuttings.

That is the reality of attempting to manage nature. We can rarely do anything under ideal harvest circumstances because of time, Mother Nature and other reasons, but we do the best we can.

As you get your results think about the stage of growth the forage was in, the type of weather during cutting, curing and harvest and any other notes. Then as you look ahead to next growing season and putting up hay once again, do everything you can to efficiently improve forage quality and nutritive value of your stored resources.

The better the nutritive value of your forage, the less you will need to supplement and the more money you can keep in your pocket. Testing and formulating rations takes some effort, but once it becomes routine it will come with greater ease.

In case you are buying all your hay, a good question to the producer of the hay may be whether a forage analysis was completed on any of the hay he is offering for sale.

If not, then I would recommend you as the buyer get some samples tested so you know the quality of hay you are buying and feeding to your livestock.

Tony Nye is the state coordinator for the Ohio State University Extension Small Farm Program and has been an OSU Extension Educator for agriculture and natural resources for 29 years, currently serving Clinton County and the Miami Valley EERA.

Tony Nye

OSU Extension