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Hay may be susceptible to reduced quality and require supplementation as feed

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

“Making high quality hay is a lot easier said than done,” commented Keith Johnson, Extension forage specialist at Purdue University.

Johnson and former Montana State University Extension Beef Specialist John Paterson spoke as guests on the Oct. 22 edition of Beef RoundTable.

“One cause of low quality hay may be that it is cut too late as compared to a timetable of making higher quality hay due to maturation,” Johnson noted.

Rain damage to a crop that has been laid in a swath or windrow may also reduce forage quality.

“Thirdly, when one makes hay a bit too wet, we find that hay in the cure process or in storage can actually have some deterioration of forage quality,” he added.

Determining quality

To determine how the quality of a particular crop has been affected, Johnson suggested combining both a sensory and a chemical analysis.

“In a sensory analysis, we are essentially using the aspects of sight, smell and our fingers in terms of touch,” he explained.

Visually, a producer may determine that certain weeds have been wrapped into their bales. They may also note the maturity of the forages based on the vegetative stage of the crop or the presence of seed heads.

“I am also looking for foreign objects within the bales, such as aluminum from cans or dead matter,” he commented.

A musty smell in the hay may indicate that hay was baled too wet, and by running their hands over the hay, producers may be able to detect the presence of spines or other rough textures that may make the hay less desirable for livestock.

Forage testing

“I am also going to do a chemical analysis, and this requires proper sampling technique, which means that I really need to invest in a hay probe,” Johnson continued.

He suggests visiting as a resource to learn about how hay should be properly tested and which local labs are certified to test forages.

“We want to store our hay in an organized way so when we sample our hay, we know where it actually came from and we can properly feed the hay based on the chemical analysis we receive,” he said.

If results indicate that hay quality is low, Paterson recommended using supplements when feeding livestock.

He noted, “In our herd we might have mature cows, bred heifers, replacement heifers and maybe some bulls. Our strategy should be to ask, where am I at today and where do I need to be next year?”

Balanced nutrition

Current body condition scores and desired scores for the spring should be noted and referenced in context to the reproductive stage of the animals.

“The first thing we could do would be to provide a protein supplement, and that can be done a lot of different ways,” Paterson continued.

Alfalfa hay, soybean hulls or commercial supplements are all possible diet additives to increase protein.

“The reason we provide protein is it causes those animals to eat more of that low-quality forage. If they are eating 25 pounds of low-quality forage, we might be able to get them up to 28 or 30 pounds by providing a protein supplement,” he said.

One indicator of adequate dietary protein may be the consistency of manure.

“If I don’t have enough protein in the diet, there will be dry, hard manure pack, and I’ll need to get some protein into the cows with some alfalfa hay, supplement, distiller’s grain or something like that,” he commented.

Paterson added that sitting down with an animal nutritionist and a feed dealer to discuss feed analysis results could be beneficial for creating a feed supplement program.

“Get a balanced nutritional program put together,” he suggested.

Johnson also noted, “Look at the forages first in terms of what we intend for the hay. Some hay is just inherently a higher quality than others.”

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be contacted at

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