Nebraska hay growers have been frustrated for years with wide variations in forage-test results from laboratories. Big differences in relative feed value from tests of the same hay lots have sparked price disputes, at times causing growers to lose clients.

So the growers opened their own forage analysis lab this month in an attempt to get more reliable numbers.

The Nebraska Alfalfa Marketing Association (N.A.M.A.) lab will use near-infrared technology and, at this point, test only hay for members and others interested in using the lab.

“Our main reason for creating our own lab is all the variations from labs,” says Barb Kinnan, N.A.M.A.'s executive director.

She says it's common knowledge that some forage testing labs report high relative feed value (RFV) scores while others provide low scores. If a hay grower or dealer uses one lab and the buyer has another lab test the same hay, the buyer may get a lower RFV and insist on paying a lower price.

“Hay growers have gotten a bad rap,” Kinnan says, and have been blamed for using inflated scores to get higher prices for their hay. “That's what we're trying to get away from. We want the numbers to be real and we want them to be reliable.”

The association hopes its lab will produce reliable results using replicated analyses, something proposed by Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin extension forage specialist. Rather than submitting one sample of 20 cores from one hay lot, Undersander recommends putting a third of those cores in each of three bags, then submitting all three samples for analysis and getting a range of numbers rather than just one score.

“We think it's good for the industry, because by running three samples instead of one, we will have an idea of the variability within a lot of hay,” says Undersander. “And it will help hay buying and selling because people will understand that every number is an estimate and there is a range around it.”

He recommends that no price adjustments be made unless the retest is outside the range given by the replicated analysis.

Having three samples tested instead of one increases lab fees, of course, but Undersander says growers have to look at the whole picture. With hay at $200/ton, “it's ridiculous” that people will be upset about paying a few dollars more for accurate analyses, he says.

Replicated analysis is being used by a few larger commercial hay operations that no longer have to deal with disputes from buyers, Kinnan says.

“That's what we're trying to strive toward — to get some numbers that people can rely on and not worry about being disputed,” she says.

“When we sell our hay to a dairyman and we represent it as, say 160 RFV, and he gets a test back as 140, that doesn't do anybody any good,” adds Steve Rice, a Wilsonville, NE, grower and N.A.M.A. member. “It's not going to be exact, but it should be within a tolerable range, and 20 points is not tolerable.”

Over several years, Rice helped N.A.M.A. send blind samples to labs to investigate the differences in test results. “We hadn't gotten any closer to finding out why there are such variances,” he says. “Nobody wants to admit anything. The labs say it's difference in sampling techniques and the growers say they sample their hay the same way every time.”

The N.A.M.A. lab, he adds, seems like a way to control those variables and produce accurate results.

“We've been frustrated with some of the labs' results,” agrees N.A.M.A. president John Wood of Bellwood.

“Maybe we'll do better than everybody else; maybe we won't. I don't think we're saying that nobody else knows how to run a lab. We just saw some ways we can use it as a tool for our marketing association.”

The lab will also help the marketing group have a better idea of the quality and quantity of hay ready when potential buyers call and ask, Wood says.

“And we might get some insight into the difficulties labs are having. Maybe everybody will send samples that are too large and it will enable us to get back to our membership and say, ‘Gosh, we don't need two quarts of hay.’”

Education is also a reason for the association-owned lab, Kinnan says. “We are going to have our machine set up at the Mid-America Alfalfa Expo and show how a test is done and that sampling does affect the results.” Members will have a chance to see intensive forage testing demonstrations at the group's annual meeting in September, she says.

The lab will work toward becoming certified by the National Forage Testing Association and is following protocols set up by Undersander in accordance with the NIRS Forage and Feed Testing Consortium.

“The certification protocol spans several months. Hopefully we'll get that certification in the near future,” says Ron Sealock, the new N.A.M.A. lab manager. Sealock comes from Iowa State University, where he ran a research station for eight years.

What makes the N.A.M.A. lab different from other labs, Sealock says, is that it only tests forage. “We don't do soil sampling or manure or water. We simply concentrate on hay. So there's an element of specialization there where we concentrate on doing the best that we can and we want to put out good, accurate results.

“We're in the business for the buyer and the seller because our members want to be able to market to the seller and have that seller be able to depend on the numbers. They want to believe in the numbers and they want to have the buyers get the same numbers when they receive the hay.”

Lab fees will be comparable to those of other labs. The lab will be located at 2416 Road 19, Exeter, NE 68351. Phone: 888-525-8836. Email: foragetesting@nebraska-alfalfa.com.