Take a Closer Look: Visually Evaluating Hay for Quality

Posted: October 17, 2011

Do you purchase hay for your livestock or produce your own hay? Learn to visually identify some quality indicators in hay.

If you keep livestock on your farm, you certainly have been keeping track of feed prices. One of the staples in your animals’ diet is forage. The hay markets have continued to climb over the past few months with the challenging year our hay producers were faced with. Whether you are in the position of buying or selling hay, quality should be a major consideration. Hay varies in quality more than any other crop harvested for feed in America. Sometimes a chemical analysis of hay is not cost effective or feasible. Les Vough, University of Maryland, put together a great fact sheet on visually evaluating hay quality and suggests the following indicators be evaluated:

  • Stage of Maturity – Stage of maturity is the most important indicator of hay quality, and refers to the plant’s stage of development at the time it is harvested. To determine the stage of maturity of alfalfa, observe the buds or flowers and the texture and woodiness of the stems. If alfalfa is cut in the bud stage, it has buds at the tips of the stems, but no purple flower petals. Bud stage alfalfa is usually very leafy and the stems are fine and pliable. Alfalfa after it has blossomed has a stemmy appearance, with larger, woody stems and fewer leaves. Grass hay can easily be examined for the stage of maturity by examining the flowering part of the plant (ex: timothy seed head). If the grasses are cut before full bloom, there will be no visible ripe seeds or flower parts.
  • Leafiness – Leafiness is defined as the ratio of leaves to stems. In legumes, curing and handling can cause leaf loss more readily, and is a bigger concern. About 60% of the total digestible nutrients (TDN), 70% of the protein, and 90% of the vitamins are found in the leaves. As plants mature, leaves have a tendency to shatter from the stem, and may be lost in processing the hay or wasted when the hay is fed.
  • Color- The most desirable color is the bright green of the immature crop in the field. Hay’s bright green color may be lost to bleaching from the sun, rain during curing, fermentation in the bale, or because the plants were too mature when cut. Color, however, can be deceiving. Often, early cut hay that received rain damage will have a higher nutritive value than bright green, late cut hay. Be careful not to put too much emphasis on color.
  • Odor and Condition – Everyone who lives in a rural area can probably associate with the smell of newly-mown hay, and this is the standard by which hay odor is judged. Odor problems can stem from weather damage or insufficient drying before bailing. Mustiness or a rotten odor will indicate lower quality hay. Livestock usually do not prefer to eat hay with odor problems.
  • Foreign Materials – Foreign materials can be further broken down into two groups: materials that can injure livestock and those that cannot. Materials that can injure livestock include poisonous plants, wire, nails, glass, etc. Materials that are not harmful to livestock include weeds, grain straw, cornstalks, sticks, etc. Weed seeds usually pass through livestock, and when manure is spread, can become a weed problem in your pasture or fields.

Should these factors all be given the same weight when evaluating quality? According to Les, the answer is no. Maturity is the most important factor, foreign material is the least important, and the remaining factors fall somewhere in between. For more information, including a sample scoring sheet for evaluating hay quality, refer to the complete publication from the University of Maryland.

Contact Information

Dwane Miller
  • Extension Educator, Agronomy
Phone: 570-622-4225 x14