Hay quality conflicts between California buyers and sellers are likely to happen less often in the future, thanks to a new program launched recently by University of California forage specialists.

Earlier this summer, they started an on-line hay sampling self-certification program aimed at standardizing sampling procedures.

It's needed, says Dan Putnam, extension forage agronomist, because most hay-test disagreements are due to sample variation, not to lab error or bias.

He points out that, when hay is tested, only a few grams are actually analyzed. Yet that small amount represents thousands of pounds of highly variable plant material.

Hay is so variable because leaves and stems are very different in quality, plus wet spots and fertility differences create variations across fields. Weeds also can cause big differences within lots.

“The amount of variation within haystacks is tremendous,” says Putnam. “It's very easy to see differences of 5-10 points of ADF or NDF (or 30-50 points of relative feed value) from probe to probe in a seemingly uniform stack.”

But if standardized hay sampling protocols are used, the sample can fully represent the variations within a lot, and the average feeding value of a stack. Certified sampling won't eliminate sample-to-sample differences but it can keep variation to a manageable level, says Putnam.

The on-line program was developed for hay growers, dairy managers, nutritionists, brokers and labs — anyone interested in taking accurate hay samples. It consists of a list of hay sampling steps and other reading material, a 30-question exam and a self-certification process.

Anyone who passes the exam can print out certificates indicating that he or she has used recommended procedures in sampling a given lot of hay. These methods are similar to those recommended by universities across the U.S. Putnam says growers may want to send signed certificates with lab reports to indicate to customers that the correct sampling methods were used.

“It's an opportunity for individuals to state that they have taken the sample according to a given protocol,” he says. “It raises both the perceived and the actual value of a hay test by removing doubts about how the sample might have been taken.”

Although the program was developed at the University of California, it is currently under consideration for co-sponsorship and endorsement by the National Forage Testing Association.

The program takes 15-20 minutes to complete. It's open to anyone and there's no cost. Just log on to alfalfa.ucdavis.edu and click on Forage Testing.