All Hay is Not Created Equal

As fall is rapidly approaching and producers are making their final preparations for fall and winter hay usage many are looking at possibly purchasing and/or selling of hay crops.

Many times over my past years as an Agriculture Educator and so called expert in the field I have been asked, “What do you think my hay is worth?” or “How much should I give for hay this year?” Often times sight unseen and/or with very limited information to base my response on, they expected a precise answer. Can’t do it!!!

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?

Let’s begin by asking a few questions and I will try to guide you down the road 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 can be wire tied, shipped in from out of state, and weighing 100lbs each or maybe plastic string tied, soft and saggy, weighing 55-60 pounds each still setting in the field? Are the big bales 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 different forms.

Let’s look at big round bales for a minute.  What type of baler was used, are the bales so tight the cows will 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? You expect to get a ton of grain when you order it don’t you.  You expect the ration you purchased to be an exact crude protein level so you can calculate intake.  Did you weigh the bales?  Not every 4’X5’ bale weighs 1000 pounds.  For the most part they will be around 800 pounds when properly put up.  Just how much moisture is in the bale? What is the right moisture level for hay, after it has been stored for a while?  Proper moisture content for baling is 18-22% for small square bales, 14-18 % for large round bales, and 12-16% for large bales.  Did it rain last night? Is it last year’s hay?  Is it or was it stored in a barn?  What is its current temperature? Hay put up to wet will heat. Safe storage temperature for hay is 120 degrees F or below.  Hay above 165 F can pose a possible fire danger.  If hay is baled at the proper moisture content, the temperature should peak around 4-7 days after baling and then begin to decline. Questions like these may and should affect pricing.  Good quality grass hay can easily be priced at $50.00 to $75.00 a ton or higher 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 even as grass among themselves may differ in feed value as well.  Just what is Mixed Grass hay?  Mixed with what? 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.  Just how much feed value is in wild carrot and/or ragweed anyway? If you are comparing on Crude Protein alone, excluding weedy hay, it should be at least 9-12% to meet the need of mature cattle depending on what stage she is in.  Remember if is green and you can bale it does not mean they will eat it and/or benefit from it.

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 greatly concerned about quality.  More bales per acre means more bales to sell or get paid for baling. Remember Texas was paying $100.00 or more a bale for anything when the droughts were on.  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 can and will be spread on your farm when unrolled as you feed your 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.  None of these have great feed value, as far as I know, and can be  spread on your farm if you are not careful.  Just how much does it cost to spray for weeds anyway?

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?  That depends….  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.  When I last checked all three of these will return higher profits to you at market time.  I am not saying high quality hay is the only answer towards these goals, but it couldn’t hurt.  Are you buying addition supplements to offset lower quality hay and could that be avoided if you would just purchase a little higher quality product.

So, what are some of the solutions to this dilemma?  First and foremost know your operation.  Just what are you feeding and what do they really need. Maybe you could:

  1. Go check the field you think you might want to buy for hay before the producer mows, rakes, and bales it.  Just see what is out there?
  2. Purchase a couple of sample bales from the lot, weigh them, take them home, feed them out, and see how your cows react.
  3. 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.


  • Test the hay yourself. Most hay testing cost less than $25.00 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 their operation?

Just a thought………..

Author: Terry Halleran, Agronomy Specialist Hickory County