by: Heather Smith Thomas

The difference between high quality hay and low quality hay (less nutrient content, and perhaps containing molds and dust) is primarily in the harvesting. The plants in a certain field will make some difference, of course—whether it's a good stand of alfalfa, palatable grasses or has gone mostly to weeds—but poor harvesting conditions/methods can reduce a good hay crop to poor or even unsafe feed for horses or even for cattle.

Glenn Shewmaker, state forage specialist with the University of Idaho, says the stage of harvest is important. “If you are producing hay or thinking to buy hay, try to go look at the field at least a week prior to when you think it might be ready to cut. This is the best time to control the quality in terms of plant maturity, one way or another, and to see what's actually in the field—such as weed problems,” he says. If it's alfalfa, you can also see if it's already blooming, which might make it more attractive to blister beetles, some species of which are deadly to horses.

If you are buying hay, talk with the producer and agree on the stage of maturity at which it should be cut. Communication always helps. For some classes of animals you'll want more mature hay, whereas for mares and foals or cows with calves you'd want early-cut immature plants that are higher in protein. “Tell the producer how much you want of each kind of hay so the producer has a chance to custom fit the hay to your needs. The mistake many people make is that they try to make one type of hay fit all. You can do this sometimes if you are careful, but it's best to target the hay product to different classes of stock,” says Shewmaker.

The highest quality hay (in terms of protein and other nutrients) is needed for lactating dairy cows and this type of hay would be too rich for most horses or beef cattle. Lactating mares and young foals would require the next highest class of hay, then beef cows with calves, working horses and finally idle horses. The lowest quality hay (that might be weather damaged and contain dust and mold) can generally only be utilized by non-lactating beef cattle. There are also quantity issues; the hay producer may let some hay get more mature than what you'd actually want for mares and foals, just because mature hay (growing longer) produces more tonnage than immature hay.

“There are hay prediction sticks (which measure stem length and use a scale for bud and open flower stages to give an index for estimating acid detergent fiber, neutral detergent fiber and relative feed value), but basically most horsemen, cattlemen and hay producers look at relative maturity. If it's alfalfa, you look for buds and eventually flowers. If it's grass hay you look for the boot stage (if you want a very high quality grass) or seed heads to indicate more maturity, as for idle horses. One of the problems with mixed hay (grass and alfalfa) is that one species is generally ahead of the other in maturity, so the timing of cutting must be a compromise, in this instance,” he says.

“Our use of the detergent fiber test (which is important to the dairy industry) has often led us to discount grass hay too much. There are higher fiber levels in grass hay, but it is a more digestible fiber. Some of the newer tests, like the digestible NDF (neutral detergent fiber) and relative forage quality, as opposed to the older tests for relative feed value are better measures, and more accurately compare grass and mixed hays with alfalfa,” says Shewmaker.

Time of day in cutting can also make a difference in quality of hay. Hay cut in the late afternoon has higher nutrient content than hay cut in the morning. The plants accumulate sugars and starches during the day, through photosynthesis, and then use up these nutrients at night as they grow, he explains. Thus for highest nutrient values, select hay cut in late afternoon, but for an idle horse, morning cut hay might be just right. A horse that is prone to insulin resistance problems or laminitis would do best with hay cut in the early morning when the plants are lowest in sugars and starches.

Moisture Considerations -- Time of day the hay is baled will also make a difference in quality, regarding moisture conditions—whether the hay is too moist (and might mold) or too dry—which leads to more shattering and loss of leaves when going through the baler. In a dry climate many hay producers try to bale the hay with a little dew on it, to minimize leaf loss, since most of the nutrients are in the leaves (whether alfalfa or grass hay) rather than the stems.

“For most arid regions, it works very well to bale after sundown when the hay is not quite so dry. Usually in the early morning, if there's a lot of dew, it becomes too wet. You may have about half an hour of ideal baling conditions in the early morning, before the hay becomes too ‘tough' (wet with dew),” he says. Sometimes it's hard to make ideal hay since timing must also take weather into consideration such as an approaching thundershower. The hay producer may be trying to get the whole field baled before it gets rained on, since hay that's dry and nearly ready to bale will lose a great deal of quality if it gets wet with rain and has to dry out again. Once it's in a compact bale, a little rain won't hurt it much, since the moisture won't penetrate into the bale more than an inch or so—unless it's a downpour or an all day (or several day) rain.

“This is the tricky part. The hay really needs to get as dry as possible before baling, and then hopefully baled in the evening when the humidity raises a little—so the leaves will stay attached. This is especially important for alfalfa, since those leaves tend to shatter when dry. The dryness factor is a little less important for grass. For small bales, I prefer the moisture content to be below 16 percent, for horses. You usually won't get mold in these conditions. If it gets up above 18 percent, mold is a high probability,” he says. Some hay producers use moisture meters to check the hay and help determine when to bale a field, though some who've been putting up hay for a long time have an intuitive sense for the moisture levels in the hay just by feeling the stems.

“We recommend using a moisture meter, and most of these are designed for bales (a compressed forage). They don't work as well in a windrow. One of my colleagues, Ron Thaemert, developed a little compaction tool made from PVC pipe, that compresses a forage sample from a windrow. Then you can use the probe to measure that, before you even pull the baler into the field. But you should always check the meter by oven drying a sample to see how accurate it is. You can also use the old physical tests, and go by feel and scratching the cuticle on the stems, or various twisting and snap tests to check stem dryness. We advise using both new and old technology, whatever a person is comfortable with,” says Shewmaker.

Some horsemen and cattlemen use large bales (the big round bales or large square bales), and these must be put up with even more ideal conditions, to avoid quality loss. “The bigger the bale, the more potential problem with moisture. They basically have to be two to three percent drier than a small bale when baled. They are usually more dense and can't dissipate moisture like a small bale. There is some air movement around the edges of a small bale and it can continue drying a little bit until it's stacked,” he says. But in a big bale any excess moisture can't escape.

Differences In Haying Equipment -- Most of the cutting equipment today crimps and conditions the hay as it's cut, so it will dry faster and be ready to bale a day or two sooner than with older methods. This allows the hay to be baled with less risk of getting rained on (while waiting for it to dry) and also improves the quality, since less nutrients are lost. The longer it must take to dry, the more nutrient loss. Prolonged heat destroys some of the nutrients. “The longer it sits out there, the less nutrients and more fiber you have,” he says. Timely cutting and timely baling are both very important.

Sometimes you can't avoid rain; the hay must be cut before it gets overly mature, and you have to take your chances on rain. The rain is less damaging if it hits the crop soon after cutting, and most damaging if it was nearly dry enough to bale when it gets saturated again. “The greener it is when it rains on it, the better. There are tedders that fluff the hay up nicely and help it dry faster, and windrow inverters that would also be good in that situation; these would be better than a rake. They are more expensive, but they are an option,” he says.

“There are various models, but in general a windrow inverter picks up the hay and there's usually a belt that carries and turns it upside down. It's more of a lifting action than a rake. With a rake, if the hay is too wet, it just twists into a rope. Even though you've moved the hay, it's still too tight. With the inverter, the hay is more fluffy. If the top is dry and you can turn it completely over, the hay will dry more thoroughly. This is the best equipment for this job, even though it is expensive—and one more piece of equipment the hay producer might buy (since almost everyone has a rake). Any time you add one more step to the harvesting, you also have to charge more for the product, especially with fuel prices,” he says.

“There's also been a shift to more disc or rotary mowers rather than reel-type cutters. There might be a couple of issues for horse owners, however, when a rotary is used. There may be slightly more dirt in the hay, using a rotary mower (since they can cut closer and may run into mole hills, ditch banks, uneven ground, etc.) The rotary mowers work better on grass than a sickle mower, however,” he says.

“I think it's important to dry the hay as quickly as possible, so it helps to rake the hay (turn it) even though the mower puts it in a windrow. A common strategy is to spread the windrow out as wide as possible, for fast drying—capturing solar radiation and heat,” says Shewmaker. Then it can be turned over with a rake, making the windrow the proper width for the baler, and also ensuring that the hay next to the ground is then uppermost for further drying.

“The stem moisture is the issue. The leaves on top dry very quickly. So it helps to rake and turn it, at the proper moisture level, which is sooner than most people do—like a day or two after cutting, when the moisture is at about 40 percent.” Even turning it a short while ahead of baling can often allow you to bale it a day earlier than you could otherwise.

The baler used can make a difference, also. Some of the older balers did not compact the hay as much and there might be more moisture dissipation, but also the looser bale had more quality loss during storage. A denser bale not only contains more hay but has less loss due to weather damage since moisture doesn't penetrate as far into it (from rain, or from damp ground, on the bottom). There is always a certain percentage of loss around the outside of a bale, and the bigger and denser the bale, the less this will be.

There's also less total hay loss, from a field, when using big bales. “You gather up more of the hay in the windrow. With little bales, there's always a little more leaf loss; too many of the leaves fall out of it. The larger the baler, the more material is kept in it,” he says. Windrow size/width is also important, and should be coordinated with the size of the baler. You want to pick up as much hay as you can in each trip around the field (to save time and fuel) but also not have the windrows so big that the baler misses some of the hay along the edges of the windrows.

“Storage considerations are of utmost importance today, with the price of hay. It just makes sense to protect the hay (for less spoilage) by keeping it up off the ground or stacked on a crushed rock base for good drainage, and well covered—either in a barn or with a good tarp,” says Shewmaker.

Differences In Cuttings – One of the differences in hay involves the overall plant maturity—whether it's cut early or late in its growth period. “There are also differences just between cuttings, due to the season and how fast the hay is growing (whether it's growing in cool weather of early spring or late fall, or during the heat of summer). Normally, a first cutting—whether it is alfalfa or grass, or mixed—is usually a nice all-purpose hay. It has a good yield and also has plenty of fiber, as well as adequate energy and protein. Even though it might have a coarse stem (in the case of alfalfa), all the animals like it, and it's good feed,” he says. It grew slowly enough to accumulate the needed nutrients.

“The second cutting, or hot season cutting, which in some regions may include a second and third cutting or even a fourth—whatever cuttings are grown during the fastest growing conditions—can be very pretty, very clean and leafy and fine-stemmed. But generally the animals don't like it as well because it grew too fast. There's not as high a concentration of sugars, for instance. But if you have a laminitic horse or any horse that is sensitive to sugars and needs to be on a diet with less non-structural carbohydrates, then those hot season cuttings will generally be safer and a good choice for that animal,” he explains.

The end season cuttings are richer in nutrients again (in the fall when the nights are cooling again). “The final cutting or cuttings will have higher energy levels because it's growing slower. It might even be blooming but still be very high quality and nutrient dense. That cutting seems to still maintain its quality, so this would be a good feed for a mare or foal or cows with calves, but probably more than you need for an idle horse or dry cows, unless you use it in a mix,” he says. If you are buying hay, always talk to your hay grower or supplier, so they know what type and quality of hay you want.

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