Making the effort to produce higher-quality hay in order to get better prices is worthwhile – but only up to a point, says C. Wilson Gray, University of Idaho (UI) Extension ag economist.

On average, premium-quality hay brought nearly $18/ton more than “good” hay, according to results from a UI research study comparing average hay prices in Idaho from 1997 to 2008. The minimum price spread between the two grades over the 12-year period was $10/ton, Gray points out. Good hay also brought an average of $13/ton over fair hay during those years.

The difference at the top end of the quality ladder was less pronounced. Supreme-quality hay prices averaged $111/ton, and premium hay brought an average price of $114. While supreme hay did bring a better price in some years, the bonus compared to premium hay in those years was $2.82/ton.

“To get that supreme hay, you’re going to harvest earlier, and that typically means a loss in yield,” says Gray. “You’re also going to have to spend a little more in terms of weed control. And then, even if you do everything right, there’s still a chance that the hay will get rained on before you get it put up. The question you have to ask is whether all of that – the extra input costs, the additional management and the weather risk – is really worth it if you’re only going to get about $2/ton more for supreme hay compared to premium hay.”

Also, says Gray, most dairies utilize supreme and premium hay interchangeably. “If they can’t buy supreme hay, they’ll make up for some of the nutrients they stand to lose by modifying their rations with other ingredients. Their goal is to come up with a least-cost ration.”

Gray’s bottom line: “Unless you have a buyer willing to pay whatever it takes to make that supreme hay, premium hay should be your target.”

Gray was a speaker at this year’s Idaho Hay and Forage Conference. See conference proceedings.