Do Your Herd and Your Bank Account a Favor – Test Your Hay!

By : Mary Drewnoski, Nebraska Extension Beef Systems Specialist

Every year I get calls for help with balancing rations and most don’t have a hay analysis. All hay of the same species is NOT created equal.  For instance, smooth bromegrass hay can range from 48 to 58% total digestible nutrients (TDN) with crude protein (CP) ranging from 6 to 11% CP. This can be the difference between a growing heifer losing 0.25 lb/d or gaining 0.37 lb/d. If you were targeting the heifer gaining 1 lb/d you would need to supplement between 1.5 and 3 lb/d of dried distillers to reach this goal.   At $150/ton for dried distillers, this would be a difference in cost of $10 vs. $20 per heifer for a 90 day period. Now multiply that by the number of heifers you have and the costs can add up quickly. If you don’t know the quality of your hay, how do you pick?

Do you choose the lower rate and potentially have heifers that are not ready to breed? Or pick the higher rate and potentially spend money you don’t need to. The easy answer is neither. If you know the quality of your hay, you can make the right decision in terms of supplementation level and not spend more money than you need to.

Likewise, not all alfalfa is the same.  Alfalfa can range from 11 to 18% CP and 45 to 60% TDN. If you are using alfalfa as the main hay source prior to turn out on grass for mature cows post calving, the higher quality alfalfa will result in cows maintaining body condition, but the poorer quality alfalfa will have them losing 2/3 of a body condition score a month.  While one can take the “feed it and see approach”, plane of nutrition post calving can have huge impacts on breeding success. Thus, this gamble can have large financial impacts.

Also, last year’s hay tells you nothing about this year’s hay. The growing conditions and timing of harvest are unlikely to be replicated.  This year was not very good for getting hay up in a timely manner. I would suspect that more supplementation will be needed this year due to the greater rainfall and harvest of forage in a more mature state. However, you will not know whether this is true unless a forage analysis is conducted.

I hope I have convinced you that spending the time and money to test hay is well worth the investment. Now it is time for me to tell you how to get a sample that will be useful. The biggest source of error when it comes to hay analysis is the sample that was obtained. A grab sample from a bale is not very useful as it represents about 1 square foot in the field.  It is important to use a hay probe to get a sample. For more information on hay sampling, check out the article Test, Don’t Guess-sampling and testing hay. Still want to know more? Check out the webinar “How to Take a Representative Forage Sample”.

Don’t have a hay probe? That is okay. You can borrow one from Nebraska Extension. The following Extension Offices have a hay probe available to be loaned out.  Want to save yourself from making a special trip to town each year to borrow one? Then buy your own. You can get one for a couple hundred dollars. This cost is easy to make back in supplement saved or animal performance gained.  The National Forage Testing Association has a list of hay probes and companies that sell them.

County Email Phone
Antelope County 402-887-5414
Boone County 402-395-2158
Box Butte County 308-762-5616
Boyd County 402-775-2491
Brown County 402-387-2213
Buffalo County 308-236-1235
Burt County 402-374-2929
Cedar County 402-254-6821
Cherry County 402-376-1850
Cheyenne County 308-254-4455
Custer County 308-872-6831
Dawes County 308-432-3373
Dawson County 308-324-5501
Deuel County 308-874-2705
Dixon County 402-584-2234
Dodge County 402-727-2775
Dundy County 308-423-2021
Fillmore County 402-759-3712
Frontier County 308-367-4424
Furnas County 308-268-3105
Gage County 402-223-1384
Garden County 308-772-3311
Garfield, Loup, Wheeler County 308-346-4200
Harlan County 308-928-2119
Hayes County 308-286-3312
Hitchcock County 308-334-5666
Holt County 402-336-2760
Hooker County 308-645-2267
Howard County 308-754-5422
Jefferson County 402-729-3487
Johnson County 402-335-3669
Keya Paha County 402-387-2213
Knox County 402-288-5611
Lancaster County 402-441-7180
Lincoln, Logan, McPherson County 308-532-2683
Merrick County 308-946-3843
Morrill County 308-262-1022
Nance County 308-536-2691
Nemaha County 402-274-4755
Platte County 402-563-4901
Rock County 402-387-2213
Saline County 402-821-2151
Saunders County 402-624-8030
Sheridan County 308-327-2312
Sioux County 308-668-2428
Thayer County 402-768-7212
Thomas County 308-645-2267
Webster County 402-746-3417
York County 402-362-5508
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