One of the largest hay marketing cooperatives in the U.S. constantly has to deal with dairymen over differing forage-test results.

Forage-test results, says Rick Staas, president and CEO of the San Joaquin Valley Hay Growers Association, become negotiating points between it and dairies.

“It's frustrating from a grower's standpoint; they're kind of at the mercy of those numbers. If the numbers are off by a couple of TDN points, it costs them a lot of money,” says Staas.

In 2005, the California co-op sold 300,000 tons of hay for 245 growers.

“We pay the grower for the hay and it's up to us to collect the money from the dairyman. So if we go from a 56 TDN down to a 54 TDN, we're looking at $30-40/ton difference in price. In the meantime, we've got $15 in freight into it or more and it becomes a real problem.”

Currently, if a dairyman wants to retest a load of hay, Staas asks him to do it before it's sent to the dairy. That's not always possible, however, because a lot of customers don't come to the fields to buy their hay.

“We've got stacks in a lot of fields, so we can get around the whole stack and get good samples. When it gets to the dairy, a lot of times it's double-stacked and they can't get to all the product. Basically, they're not testing all the hay; they're testing part of it.

“If they come back with a substantially different number, then it brings up the question of whether this hay is really 56 or 54. So that usually entails a third sample. It's time-consuming for the guys to pull the sample and to send it over to the lab. Then you have another couple of days where the hay doesn't get sold,” Staas says.

Staas' only “solution,” besides asking dairies that want to retest to do so before it's delivered, is to test hay at the same labs his dairy customers use.

“There are differences between labs,” he says. Some of the problem, he thinks, may be because some labs are NIR-only. “Everybody went to NIR because it's fast and wet chemistry takes three days. NIR needs to be backed up by wet chemistry checks because the NIR machines get out of whack sometimes. And I think the grinding of the samples makes a difference depending on the kind of grinder you use.”

NIR machines need to be calibrated to wet chemistry — especially if they want National Forage Testing Association (NFTA) certification, says Tom Keene, University of Kentucky hay marketing specialist and National Hay Association representative on NFTA's board.

“NFTA has made some headway in getting labs to try to do the right thing, but it's a slow process,” Keene adds. “Some labs use different equations or different formulas to calculate some of the parameters.” And dairymen, growers and other sellers know which labs test low and which test high — and can take advantage of that, Keene and Staas agree.

“There's a tendency in the dairy industry to want samples from one lab because the tests usually come back lower and they can get the hay cheaper. Then they resample it at the other lab and get a little bit higher and they're happy that they got a bargain,” Staas says.

That's a game independent dealers play — testing hay at one lab and buying it lower, then testing at another lab to sell it on higher numbers, he says.

Keene adds, in the same vein, that some buyers may sample the tops of bales — because leaves tend to settle at the bottom — to get lower test results. Growers may sample the bottom to get higher protein or RFV.

“So it's still very subjective,” Keene says.