"Our ultimate goal is to enhance hay marketing and hay-market reporting nationwide."

Seth Hoyt, head of USDA's Livestock & Grain Market News office in Moses Lake, WA, is referring to new national quality guidelines for hay recently proposed by a six-member state and federal market news task force.

The guidelines use crude protein (CP) percent, acid detergent fiber (ADF) percent and relative feed value (RFV) to place alfalfa hay in five quality categories: supreme, premium, good, fair and low. The supreme quality designation is new.

Grass hay guidelines are proposed using only crude protein analyses.

"The intention of the new guidelines is to eliminate misunderstandings in long-distance transactions," says Hoyt, task force chairman. "At times, we're talking different languages, and that's detrimental to effective national hay marketing."

State and federal USDA market news offices compile and report hay prices in about 25 states. Some of those prices are reported in Hay & Forage Grower's Hay Market Update.

USDA established official hay standards in the 1940s, but they became obsolete and were abolished. The current hay quality designations, established in 1985, are based on visual characteristics only.

"Some hay market news states have their own measuring criteria, but these new guidelines will provide greater uniformity for all states that rely on hay market news for pricing information," says Hoyt.

Task force members will determine this month whether alfalfa hay needs to meet all three criteria (CP, ADF, RFV) within each category to get a certain designation.

"We've found that, in some parts of the country, hay buyers and sellers are using at least one of these measurements. So when the hay grower from the West sells his hay to the Midwest, he can look at the RFV and see where it falls compared to ADF - a figure he may be familiar with. These guidelines will help standardize the language for marketing hay across state lines," says Hoyt.

Hay professionals have long debated hay standards. In the mid-1980s, the National Alfalfa Quality Committee, a task force of scientists, growers and dealers, developed alfalfa hay quality standards. However, those standards, which are supported by the National Hay Association and American Forage & Grassland Council, haven't been adopted industry-wide.

The task force is also recommending the following visual definitions for the alfalfa quality designations:

* Supreme: Very early maturity, prebloom, soft, fine-stemmed, extra leafy - factors indicative of very high nutritive content. Hay is excellent in color and free of damage.

* Premium: Early maturity, prebloom, fine-stemmed, extra leafy - factors indicative of a high nutritive content. Hay is green and free of damage.

* Good: Early to average maturity, i.e., early to midbloom. Leafy, fine- to medium-stemmed, free of damage other than slight discoloration.

* Fair: Late maturity, mid- to late bloom. Moderate or below leaf content and generally coarse-stemmed. Hay may show slight damage.

* Low: Hay in very late maturity with mature seed pods. Very coarse-stemmed. Could include hay discounted due to excessive damage and heavy weed content or mold.

The task force has received positive and negative feedback from the industry about the guidelines.

"We realize we're not going to please everyone," notes Hoyt. "If a state or region doesn't want to use a designation above premium, that's fine. We're not going to force them. If a state or region requests a designation above premium, market news will call it supreme in the hay reports."

If adopted by USDA, the new guidelines could be instituted this fall.