Great year to test hay

Chris Parker doesn’t care if only a few people take the time to test their forages. He still beats the drum, saying it’s a tool that’s not used enough by those who spend thousands of dollars for hay.

Even though the Morgan County Extension ag educator doesn’t always test his own hay, he makes primarily grass hay for winter beef cows, and after many years of experience, he knows what to expect from grass hay. He wouldn’t dream of feeding it to lactating dairy cattle.

Key Points

Forage testing is a tool that could be used by more producers.

The looks of hay are a guide, but looks can be deceiving.

Hay with more legumes tends to have higher protein and feed value.

Test value

Those who can really benefit from forage testing are dairy producers who need high-protein hay to feed to producing cows, plus anyone who may be buying a forage from someone they don’t know. Maybe you’re paying a low price per bale and don’t think you need it tested, but it may be cheap because it’s of low quality.

If it was cut early, protein content in grass hay could be as high as 13%. If it was cut later, it could be 9%. That’s a difference worth knowing about.

Parker used a forage probe that attaches to a drill to pull cores from hay samples exhibited by 4-H’ers at the Morgan County fair. Some Extension offices have probes for loan. Typically, he pulls several cores from different bales in the lot to be tested, or from several big round bales. Then he mixes the forage material, places a representative sample from each lot in a bag, and sends it to a commercial lab. Typical cost per sample is $12 to $15.


An example pulled at the fair illustrates how grass hay may stack up against other hays. One category that exhibitors can choose is mixed hay, which is typically alfalfa mixed with grass.

“The problem when you’re buying or judging mixed hay is that there can be a wide range in how much alfalfa vs. how much grass is in that particular lot,” Parker says. “The value can vary greatly depending upon how much alfalfa is in the mix.”

One sample from the fair exhibit shown as a mixed hay had a fairly even split between alfalfa and grass. Cut at a decent time, before plants were too mature, it tested 19.7% for crude protein on a dry matter basis, vs. 17.1% on an as received basis, at 13.5 % moisture.

Crude fiber was 25.7%, and relative feed value, a number representing overall feed quality, with 100 as the base, was 126.15.

Compare that to a good grass hay, with 13% protein in a dry matter basis, and 29.1% fiber. Relative feed value was 88.1, below the standard of 100. That’s because the higher fiber content and other characteristics mean the animal would get less value from the grass hay.


Quality mixed hay: Here’s a sample that is a good mix of alfalfa and grass. It posted a relative feed value of 126, compared to an RFV of 88 for the best grass hay in the show.

This article published in the October, 2011 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.