Pasture conditions continue to decline in the drought-stricken southern Great Plains states, making it increasingly likely that much of the hay required for winter feeding of livestock will be imported from outside sources.

“More often than not, low-quality hay sells for about the same price as high-quality hay; the major difference being that low-quality hay requires additional protein or energy supplementation which, in the long-term, adds increased production costs,” says Daren Redfearn, Oklahoma State University Extension forage and pasture management specialist.

Redfearn recommends that producers seek the answers to three key questions when determining the potential value of hay prior to having a forage analysis: What type of hay is it, when was it produced and what were the storage conditions?

“The type of hay is important because, as a general rule of thumb, legume hays usually will be of higher quality than grass hays,” says Redfearn. “Also, cool-season grass hays should be of higher quality than warm-season grass hays assuming each was properly harvested and stored.”

In general, hay quality declines as hay ages. For example, hay that was produced last year or the year before will have lower quality than hay produced this year, unless it was stored in a well-constructed barn that minimized moisture accumulation and other quality lessening situations. Usually, hay stored in well-designed and constructed barns loses little nutritional value over time, unless the hay is stored for periods longer than could be reasonably assumed.

“If it was high-quality hay going into the barn, it should still be high-quality hay coming out of the barn,” Redfearn says. “In contrast, quality of hay stored outside and uncovered is pretty much guaranteed to decline.”

Regardless of the answers to these questions, it is critical that all hay be properly sampled to estimate forage quality.

“Most forage quality analyses cost $10-20 per sample,” says Redfearn. “It is difficult to assign an economic advantage to forage quality testing. The cost to determine if additional protein or energy is needed would be recovered in feed savings or improved animal performance.”

He cautions that forage quality requires proper sampling and interpretation to be of value.

“A forage analysis is the only way to determine whether or not additional supplementation is required,” says Redfearn. “Also, feeding a large portion of hay for an extended period without a forage test should not occur given the expense of providing supplemental feeds."

Additional information is available through OSU Cooperative Extension fact sheets PSS-2117, Forage Quality Interpretation, and PSS-2589, Collecting Forage Samples for Analysis, via osufacts.okstate.edu.