Agricultural News: Hay Quality – If You Don’t Test, It’s Just a Guess

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   As we are preparing to head into the winter, we should be considering our winter feeding program for our livestock. One key component to determining our winter feeding program is to know the nutritional value of our hay. It’s highly important to perform a forage analysis on your hay to determine the nutrient content as it is difficult to determine supplementation requirements without knowing the nutritional quality of your hay.

   Below are a few of the things you should specifically be looking for:

•Crude Protein level – Protein is one of the nutrients needed in the largest quantity by beef cattle. A producing beef cow will need a diet that is about 10-12% protein, although this varies depending on the stage of production she is in. 

•Energy content – Energy is the second nutrient needed in the highest amount by cattle. A forage test will usually report the energy content as TDN (total digestible nutrients), which is an estimate that is based off of the fiber content of the hay. Just like protein requirements, a producing beef cow’s energy requirements change depending on her stage of production. For example, a cow at peak lactation needs on average 60% TDN/day, but after weaning she needs closer to 48-50% TDN/day. 

•Nitrates—Summer forages such as sorghums x sudans, johnsongrass, and even bermudagrass can store nitrogen in the form of nitrates. If cut for hay, this nitrate will not break down. There’s no treatment for nitrate toxicity and cattle are typically found dead, so prevention is key. 

•Crude Protein and Energy content can be determined with a standard forage test from UT, but nitrate testing must be specifically marked on the forage analysis submission sheet

   Even though testing is the only sure way to know your hay’s nutrient quality, there are some visual indicators of hay quality that be a useful tool. Dr. Katie Mason, UT’s new beef cattle specialist, provides some helpful clues as to what “good” hay may look like and whether or not your cattle will benefit from eating it. It’s important to note that these are not to be relied on as “true measures” of nutrient content as that can only come from a forage analysis.

-Leafiness: The most digestible portion of a plant is the leaf. Plentiful leaves attached to stems will provide greater nutrients to the animal.

-Maturity: This is the number one determinant of nutritive value! Plants that are more mature have greater fiber content, meaning less digestible energy. Over-mature hay will contain many stems and seed heads.

-Odor: Sour or musty odors may indicate spoilage or the presence of mold. If it smells bad to you, it’s likely your cows won’t like it either.

-Color: Not a reliable indicator of quality! High-quality hay isn’t always “greener.” Color has more to do with the curing process than quality itself.

-Softness: Hay texture can influence intake. If the hay is brittle or “pokey,” cattle may consume less. This can also be an indicator of maturity.

-Purity: Pure hay, meaning little to no weeds are present, is more consistent in terms of quality, making it easier to feed and market. However, there is a place for mixed hay in livestock feeding. As long as toxic weeds are not prevalent in the hay, species is less of a concern when it comes to quality.

-Bale Condition: Uniform size and shape makes for easier storage. Hay that has been properly stored will have less loss/wastage compared with hay that has been stored improperly.

-Contaminants: Look for toxic weeds, trash, dirt, and mold. These reduce feeding and economic value of hay.

   Again, these characteristics are tools to use but are not “true measures” or indicators of the nutrient content of the hay. If you plan to purchase hay from someone else, it may be wise for you to request a forage analysis.

   Remember, protein and energy requirements change depending on the animal’s stage of production.  This is one of the many reasons having a defined breeding season is so important. It’s much easier and economical to plan your supplementation requirements if your herd’s in the same stage of production. 

   If you’d like more information on forage testing or cattle nutrition, please call the office at 931-722-3229 or e-mail Megan Harris, Ag Agent, at mdharris@utk.edu.

*Content adapted from “Forage Test Your Hay” by Dr. Gary Bates and “Indicators of Hay Quality” by Dr. Katie Mason. Photo by P. McDaniels, courtesy UTIA.