Testing and Importing Hay

Pastures are short this year, hay is in tight supply, and the cost of feeding a cow is up.  When faced with conditions like these, getting the most out of the resources we have is critical, and the first step in doing so is understanding what resources we have to work with.

Whether feeding your own hay or buying on the market, having the hay tested to know it’s true value is vital.  Testing hay isn’t hard, it just takes a bit of time and planning.  The first step is to get a quality hay probe.  Often times your local extension office has one available to loan, or knows where to find one, so try starting there first.

Next, we need to decide what to sample.  Hay should be divided into lots, these are bales that were harvested from the same field under similar conditions.  By dividing into lots, we can ensure our hay is similar in quality and the test results will be accurate.  

Once we have our lots decided upon, it’s time to actually sample.  Sample 15-20 bales per lot, using the probe on the side that will capture the most layers.  For round bales, this is the rounded side, for squares, this is the shorter front or back end.  Mix these samples together well in a bucket and take out a quart sized Ziploc bag worth.  This final sample should be labeled with the hay type, lot number, and producer name and address and either stored in a cool, dry place, or sent to your lab of choice for analysis.  Samples that are on the wet side should be frozen before sending.  To avoid your sample sitting in the mail, try to ship during the first part of the week so the lab can begin processing before the weekend shutdown.

For hay purchased or home grown, having at least the protein, energy or TDN and moisture values are essential for feeding decisions later on.  Minerals or nitrate packages may be selected for when the circumstances require.  With this information in hand, we can save high quality hay for first calf heifers during peak lactation when nutritional demands are at their highest or feed low quality hay this fall to dry cows who we aren’t trying to build body condition on.

When purchasing hay, having a hay test before you settle on a price is worth the hassle.  Most reputable hay sellers will have one already available.  Without a test, we just don’t know what we are agreeing to purchase.  Hay can be tricky to assess visually.  In general quality hay looks nice, but there are always exceptions to the rule.  Even if a test was run last year, quality can change quite a bit from year to year, even in the same field. 

Another thing to keep in mind when buying hay is the risk of weeds.  Even in quality hay, noxious weeds can slip in and seed themselves on your ground during feeding this winter.  We can bring in sericea lespedeza and old world bluestems from Kansas, endophyte-infected fescue from Missouri, or absinthe wormwood from North and South Dakota.  Even with more local hay, a clean pasture may suddenly be infected with leafy spurge or Canada thistle.

This doesn’t mean all hay from these areas is bad, just that we need to be aware of and mitigate possible risk. If you do bring in hay, do some research beforehand, especially if importing from a long ways off.  Know what pests are a problem in their area and inspect bales thoroughly before unloading. Always reserve the right to refuse hay that you find problems with.  Then, this winter, feed in a designated area that you can keep an eye on.  That way if a problem does arise, you can identify, isolate, and control it.

Tight supplies and high costs means it’s important to get the most out of your hay this year.  To do so requires a hay test.  With home grown bales, this is as simple as finding a probe, putting hay into lots, sampling and sending the sample to a lab.  Ask for a test on purchased hay so you accurately know what you are buying.  Purchased hay also comes with the risk of importing unwanted pests along with the feed, so inspect bales as they arrive and feed in a designated area to limit the impact if problems do arise.

-Ben Beckman is a beef systems Extension Educator serving the counties of Antelope, Cedar, Knox, Madison and Pierce.  He is based out of the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington.  You can reach him by phone: (402) 254-6821 or email: ben.beckman@unl.edu