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Use testing to better manage hay shortages

Kelli Boylen Published on 16 September 2014

If you are facing hay shortages this winter, forage specialist Garry D. Lacefield says having your hay tested should be a top priority.

“Once you know the hay quality on your farm, then you will be able to balance a ration that may include less expensive commodity feeds. Without a hay test, you are only guessing,” he said. Lacefield is with the University of Kentucky Extension.

“Also if you are buying hay, insist on a hay test. It’s better to put your money into commodity feeds and limit hay than to feed hay with low nutritional value.”

There are many factors that can affect hay quality, including forage species, stage of maturity, and harvesting and storage methods. Growing temperatures, maturity, leaf-to-stem ratio and soil fertility can also affect quality.

Because there are so many factors, accurate lab testing is important to formulate rations.

Many county and state extension offices offer hay testing; contact your local office to inquire. According to the publication “Understanding Forage Quality” (PDF, 1.32 MB), if you choose a commercial lab on your own, look for one that is certified by the National Forage Testing Association (NFTA).

The NFTA certifies the proficiency of laboratories. For a current listing of certified laboratories, as well as more information about proficiency testing, visit NFTA’s website.

That same publication recommends taking at least 20 core samples from a given lot (defined as forage taken from the same farm, field, and cut under uniform conditions within a 48-hour time period) using a hay probe that has an internal diameter of three-eighths to five-eighths inch. A laboratory analysis uses only a few grams of material to represent tons of forage, which is why the sampling technique is extremely important.

For all rectangular bales, insert the hay probe 12 to 18 inches deep at a right angle into the center of the ends of the bales. For round bales, the probe should be inserted at right angles to the outside circumference of the bales. Combine all core samples and put into plastic freezer bag. The sample should weigh one-half to three-quarters of a pound. Keep out of direct sunlight and promptly send to the lab.

The standard hay test measures crude protein, acid detergent fiber, neutral detergent fiber and dry matter, according to NFTA’s website. An NDF of alfalfa hay of about 33 to 37 percent is considered ideal, 39 to 40 percent average, and forage quality significantly declines from 41 to 45 percent or above.

Working with your nutritionist, use your hay analysis to create a ration that is the most cost-effective for your operation.

Lacefield also suggests stockpiling tall fescue as one of the “easiest and best ways to stretch out hay supplies.”

In areas of the country where the summer was dry but there is adequate moisture in the fall, this can be a very good choice, he says.

Using “wise grazing management” can really stretch what is available in fall and winter pastures, he notes. For example, using rotational strip grazing will make a pasture last longer than simply turning animals out on a larger open area.

Another of Lacefield’s recommendations is to consider planting winter annuals (rye, rye grass, wheat, etc.) to make up for hay shortages, depending upon your location. Your local extension office may be able to make the best recommendations of what to plant in your area.

“Also, feed hay conservatively and be sure to not waste hay in the process,” he said.  FG

Hay bales at Standlee Hay near Eden, Idaho. Photo by Mikeal Dixon.