When it comes to purchasing hay, not only does the intended consumer of the forage need to be considered, but also nutritive factors that will influence its feeding. In many ways, shopping for hay that meets your operation’s needs is similar to shopping for a new truck, or at least it is to Charlotte Meeks, a University of Georgia county extension agent based in Perry.

“When shopping for a new truck, you don’t buy one just because the salesperson says it’s a good deal,” states Meeks in a University of Georgia Extension forage blog. “Most shoppers do their research, looking at body style, fuel mileage, towing capabilities, included options, and vehicle history,” she further explains.

Meeks thinks that shopping for hay should be treated the same way. “Have you ever met a person who can tell you the value of a truck just by looking at the exterior?” Meeks asks. She further explains that even though a physical evaluation of hay can determine some characteristics, the only way to determine the nutrient content is to have a forage test done.

Know your needs

Before starting the search for hay, know what quality you need based on the nutrient requirements of your livestock. An animal’s nutrient requirement is determined by its weight, sex, age, growth rate, and stage of production. This can be broken down further into four nutrient priorities: maintenance, growth, lactation, and reproduction.

“Animals fed differently from their nutrient requirements will either lose or gain excess weight,” Meeks states.

Meeks also says to remember that the energy requirement for livestock rises as temperatures get colder during winter.

Get it tested

To assess the quality of the hay, a forage analysis is the only option. “The quality of the forage is focused on the value of each pound versus the total pounds consumed,” Meeks explains. This is because livestock are physically limited by how much they can eat.

When you go to purchase hay, ask for the forage test results. If a test has not been completed, you can have one done yourself.

Once you receive the analysis report, there are a few numbers to focus on. Make comparisons on a dry matter basis. While the first instinct is often to look at crude protein (CP), it is often over emphasized. Meeks recommends some level of caution as high forage nitrate levels can impact CP concentrations.

Total digestible nutrients (TDN) is a measure of digestible energy and allows you to compare your forage to the needs of your livestock.

Another value to focus on is relative forage quality (RFQ), which predicts the energy available based on fiber quality and intake. This value also allows for comparisons across forage species.

“We have also been able to link ranges of RFQ to meet the energy requirements for livestock at different stages,” Meeks writes. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that a RFQ in that range will provide all the nutrients your livestock need, but it does give an idea of whether or not a forage will provide a good nutrient base to build off of and is also cost effective.”

Be sure to keep an eye on nitrate levels as well, Meeks warns. A forage with levels over 4,500 parts per million (ppm) needs to be fed at limited rates. A level above 18,000 ppm is considered lethal.

“Another factor that affects forage quality is storage,” Meeks explains. “Losses from poor storage can be between 20 and 45 percent.”

Meeks advises to allow round bales to dry to 15 percent moisture and square bales to 18 percent. Fires can result if hay isn’t allowed to cure properly.

The last piece to the hay-shopping puzzle is to consider purchasing hay by weight instead of by the bale. People tend to overestimate the weight of a bale, so if you can weigh the bales to get an estimate of the lot weight, working out a deal to purchase by weight may be possible.

“It will save you some money in the long run,” Meeks concludes.

Kassidy Buse

Kassidy Buse was the 2018 Hay & Forage Grower summer editorial intern. She is from Bridgewater, S.D., and graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in animal science. Buse is currently attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln pursuing a master’s degree in ruminant nutrition.