Hay is often priced by what your neighbor is selling it for down the road. After all if their price is cheaper than yours they will probably make the sale before you. But are the consumers really getting what they paid for?

So let’s begin by asking a few questions and try to considering maybe all hay is not created equal.  For example, how is it packaged?  Are we talking small square bales or big round bales? Small square bales, wire tied, shipped in from out of state, and weighing 100lbs each or plastic string tied bales, soft and saggy, weighing 55-60 pounds each, and still setting in the field? Is it net wrapped, in a silage bale, or maybe tied with sisal twine so the cattle can eat the string and move on? Just remember hay can come packaged in many ways.

Let’s look at big round bales for a minute. What type of baler was used, are the bales so tight the cows have difficulty pulling the hay out, or too soft creating too much waste. Are they going to be hard to stack?  Does size really matter? Are the bales 4’X4’, 4’X5’, 5’X5’, 5’X6’, 4’X6’, or 6’X6?’  How much do they really weigh? Did you even weigh them?  Not every 5’X5’ bale weighs 1000 -1100 pounds. Is it last year’s hay?  Is it or was it stored in a barn?  Questions like these may and should affect pricing. Good quality grass hay can easily be priced at $50.00 to $75.00 a ton depending on type and quality.

How about the type of forage it is. Cool season grasses like tall fescue, orchard grass, and/or smooth brome grass may differ in feed value from warm season grass like Indian grass or switch grass.  Is it truly a grass/legume mix?  Just because it has a little hop clover in it doesn’t make it so.  Grass/legume hay should be a minimum of 25-30% legume before you jump on that band wagon.

Then there is the big question of how and when it was harvested?  Many hay fields are harvested way past prime time for high quality feed forage. I do realize that weather conditions and off farm work schedules may play a part in when you can harvest but, if I am buying hay I am looking at the quality of product for sale not the process used to produce it. Also, many producers are looking for tonnage to sell and are not so greatly concerned about quality. More bales per acre means more bales to sell and Texas is paying $100.00 a bale for anything. What about those producers just trying to clean up their fields for the fall, if they can sell a little hay on the side, to cover the cost, then so be it. OK, I guess it does beat a snow bank.

No, not every producer is out there trying to get rid of junk yet the words “AS IS” usually to me means buyer beware. Is quality a concern in your operation?

Purity is another factor that should be looked at.  Hay cut late often has unwanted weeds, as well as many weed seeds, that will be spread on your farm when unrolled and fed to livestock. What better growing conditions for unwanted seed than fresh manure piles and good seed to soil contact as your cows walking it in?  Hay taken from fields being groomed and/or cleaned up may contain blackberry, buckbrush, oak sprouts, thistles and /or sericea lespedeza as the hay is being   harvested later in the year. These weed seeds can be readily spread on your farm if you are not careful. 

Color and aroma are also important qualities of good hay and should not be overlooked as well. Checking for moldy, musty, and/or dusty hays may indicate they were put up to wet, stored improperly, and/or found to be the bottom bales of the stack.  You should avoid this type of hay at all cost.

Does cheap hay usually mean cheap results?  Hay often harvested after local combining of fescue seed is more likely to lack in quality and substance of those compared to early cuttings without seed development being present.  Most cattle will respond more favorably to quality growing conditions by rewarding you in areas like higher conception rates, heavier birth weights, and heavier weaning weights.  I am not saying high quality hay is the only answer towards these goals, but it couldn’t hurt.

Steps to take when buying Hay:

1. Purchase a couple of sample bales from the lot, weigh them, take them home, feed them out, and see how your cows react.

2. After the sample bales have been consumed look for waste, sticks, trash, and unwanted items the cattle did not eat.  Waste items will have weight, take up space in a bale, and you are paying for a product that will not be used.

 3. Test the hay yourself. Most hay testing cost less than $20.00 which is usually less than the cost of one big round bale.  Just how many pounds of TDN, Digestible Protein, Vitamins, and/or minerals are you getting for your dollar?

So, the next time someone asks you to price hay are you going to look at what your neighbors are selling it for or talk to them about quality and how it will better fit the needs of the consumer?


Author: Terry Halleran, Agronomy Specialist