By Dan Morrical
Iowa State University Extension
Many acreage owners are faced with purchasing hay for their animals. Cows, sheep, goats and even horses can get most of their daily nutrient needs from quality hay.
When evaluating hay for purchase, the best method is based off a laboratory test. Most labs are running tests with NIRS (near infrared spectroscopy) equipment. It is cheaper and faster than wet chemistry analysis. Lab test results will list moisture, crude protein, energy and some minerals. Energy values are expressed as digestible energy (DE), total digestible nutrients (TDN) or net energy for maintenance (NEM). The higher the values the better, with most hays running between 50 and 60 percent TDN. Many hay auctions have hay analysis available, especially if the auction caters to dairy operations.
If laboratory analysis is not available, hay evaluation is generally based on color, leafiness and fineness of the stems. Grass hay with seed heads present indicates it was first cutting and that the hay may have been pretty mature when cut. As forage matures it contains less energy and less protein. Legume hays, such as alfalfa and clover, have higher crude protein levels than grass hays. This higher protein level is generally not needed unless the hay is being fed to really high producing animals.
In most cases, buying hay by the ton or on a weight basis is the best method of purchase. Bale weights vary and generally are overestimated by both the seller and buyer. Extremely heavy bales might be an indication the hay was baled too wet. Wire tied bales are much heavier because they can be packed much tighter in the baler chamber.
Prices for hay tend to follow their quality as determined by subjective methods of visual appraisal or objective methods via a laboratory analysis.
The key for hay buyers is to buy the quality of hay that matches your animal’s needs. Horses with minimal work loads can consume average hays and stay in good condition. Nursing mares or horses under heavy training will need higher hay quality and supplemental concentrate to maintain condition.
Animals do not have nutritional wisdom. Let me repeat: animals do not have nutritional wisdom when it comes to consuming only the amount of hay that meets their daily needs. If given the opportunity, they will eat more and become over conditioned (fat). This is very often the case when animals are considered pets rather than livestock. Full feeding super high quality hay to your pet goat keeps the goat fat and sassy but also leads to a lot of wasted hay. This hay becomes mixed with manure and becomes very expensive natural fertilizer for the garden or farm fields.
The decision that needs to be made is to buy super fancy hay and limit feed it or buy average hay and feed more per head per day. Full feeding hay of any type generally results in more waste. Use of hay rings or other feeders is very critical to limiting waste to 15 percent or less. Full feeding (i.e. letting them have all they can eat) will result in up to 50 percent waste even with the highest quality hays.
There are many excellent extension publications on feeding livestock that can be acquired on the web or through your county extension office. Becoming a knowledgeable animal owner on the nutrient needs of your animals and then buying hay that meets those needs can save a lot on the annual feed bill. If you cannot find hay of adequate quality, feeding less hay and adding more supplemental feed can also meet your animal’s requirements. This can be a cheaper feeding program that also results in less waste to haul every spring. With limited amounts of hay offered, animals can be as finicky and will consume a higher percentage of the hay offered.
Hay prices are generally much cheaper during the summer months than the winter. Developing a feeding plan and calculating the year-round needs for the animal enterprise facilitates purchasing the amount needed during the summer when prices are the lowest.
Hay will lose roughly 10 percent of its dry matter during storage. Bales stored outdoors may lose 25 to 50 percent of the dry matter. Storage indoors is the best approach to limit storage loss and stretch the hay dollar. Big round bales should be stored on pallets or old tires to reduce rotting at the bottom of the bales. Even large rock or telephone poles can make a suitable base. Net wrapped bales also have 10 to 20 percent less storage loss compared to twine wrapped bales. The last aspect of storing big bales is to place them butt to butt as tight as possible to minimize weathering on the exposed surface. Rows should be at least five feet apart to allow ventilation and insure rows do not touch once hay bales squat down.
This article is condensed from the October 2008 issue of Acreage Living, www.extension.iastate.edu/acreage/ Other articles in this month’s issue--
• Protect Rural Wells from Flooding
• Keeping Companion Animals Safe