In the wonderful world of forages, one topic is written and talked about more than all others. It really encompasses a simple message: If you make and/or feed hay, get it tested.

The battle cry to test hay has now gone on for decades, and it seems like most people should have gotten the point by now . . . but apparently, that’s not the case.

“Every year I get calls for help with balancing rations, and most don’t have a hay analysis,” writes Mary Drewnoski in a recent BeefWatch newsletter.

Drewnoski, a University of Nebraska Extension beef specialist, wants growers to know that not all forages, even those of the same species, are created equal.

She notes that smooth bromegrass, for example, can range from 48 to 58 percent total digestible nutrients (TDN) with crude protein (CP) ranging from 6 to 11 percent.

“This can be the difference between a growing heifer losing 0.25 pounds per day or gaining 0.37 pounds per day,” Drewnoski says. “If you were targeting the heifer gaining 1 pound per day, you would need to supplement between 1.5 to 3 pounds per day of dried distillers to reach this goal. At $150 per ton for dried distillers, this is a range in cost of $10 to $20 per heifer for a 90-day period,” she explains.

Without knowing the forage analysis, the producer is faced with a decision by guess. Feed the lower rate and potentially have heifers that don’t reach breeding weight when they should; feed the higher rate and potentially spend money needlessly.

Alfalfa offers even a larger range in potential quality. Drewnoski explains that if alfalfa is used as the primary hay source prior to the turn out of mature cows on grass postcalving, higher quality alfalfa will result in cows maintaining body condition. Conversely, poorer quality alfalfa can cause a loss of 2/3 of a body condition score per month.

“While one can take the ‘feed it and see’ approach, the plane of nutrition post calving can have huge impacts on breeding success," Drewnoski notes. “This gamble can have large financial impacts.”

The beef specialist also reminds producers that last year’s hay can be nothing like this year’s hay. Timeliness and growing conditions vary greatly, and 2019 wasn’t a year known for timely hay harvests. For this reason, Drewnoski anticipates more supplementation will be needed on many farms and ranches. She emphasizes, however, that it’s impossible to know for sure without a forage test.

Finally, Drewnoski emphasizes the importance of taking a proper forage sample. Grabbing samples from a 1,500-pound bale won’t cut the mustard. Rather, a hay probe is needed. If you don’t have one, consider borrowing a hay probe from your local extension office.