During the cold winter months when pastures contain minimal forage, hay is the typical diet for cattle, horses, sheep and goats.
Next to pasture, a good quality hay is the ideal feed. However, there are significant differences in the variety, quality and availability of hay, which can make feeding your livestock a time-consuming chore.
But with some planning, feeding hay during the winter months can be a simple and efficient alternative while waiting the return of spring’s lush pastures.
Animal Feeding Tips
When changing an animal’s diet, do it gradually—especially when changing from a grass to a legume. Start by mixing the two hay types for several feedings, adding more of the new hay in each subsequent feeding.
The animals’ digestive tracts must adjust to the different type of feed.
Changing to a legume hay suddenly can make an animal sick, or cause a ruminant animal to bloat. Changing from grass hay to alfalfa all at once can change the environment in the rumen of cattle, sheep and goats and in the cecum of a horse (because of the shift in pH—the acid/base balance).
This can disrupt the microbes that help the animals digest their feed.
Hay for Cattle
Cattle can generally tolerate dustier hay than can horses, and can even eat a little mold without problems. However, some types of mold may cause abortion in pregnant cows. The quality of the hay you feed will also depend on whether you are feeding mature beef cattle, young calves or dairy cows. Mature beef cattle can get by on rather plain hay of any type but lactating cows will need adequate protein. Good palatable grass hay, cut while still green and growing, can be very adequate. However, if grass hay is coarse and dry (with little vitamin A or protein), you’ll need to add some legume hay to the cattle’s diet.
Hay for Horses
Horses can do well on grass or alfalfa (or other legume) hay. Important factors to keep in mind for horse hay are the nutritional needs of the animals (mature horses will not need high protein or calcium levels unless they are mares nursing foals), and the way the hay was harvested. If it was rained on after it was cut, baled too green or too wet or too dry, it may not be safe to feed. Hay for horses should never contain dust or mold, as it may lead to coughing and respiratory problems. Some types of mold may cause colic or can cause a pregnant mare to abort.
Selecting Hay for Feed
Hay quality can vary greatly, depending on growing conditions and stage of maturity, weather and moisture conditions at harvest. Factors that can affect nutritional value include plant species in the hay, fertility of soil, harvesting methods (whether the hay was conditioned or crimped to dry faster and lose less leaves and nutrients during drying) and curing time.
One way to assess the maturity of alfalfa hay is the snap test. If a handful of hay bends easily in your hand, its fiber content is relatively low and it will be more digestible than if the stems snap like twigs.
The best way to check hay is to open a few bales and inspect it closely. Look at texture, maturity, color and leafiness. Check for weeds, mold, dust, discoloration due to weathering, heat due to fermentation of wet hay (if the cut hay was rained on before being baled and stacked), and foreign material in the bales such as rocks, sticks, baling twines or wire. If ingested, wire can cause “hardware” disease in cattle by perforating the gut and causing fatal peritonitis because they do not sort out foreign materials before eating.
Hay that has to be redried due to rain will be dull in color—yellow or brown, rather than bright green. But all hay tends to weather because the sun bleaches the outside of the bales. You often cannot tell the quality of the hay by just looking at the outside of a bale. Even if the outer edge of a bale has faded from sun exposure and rain, the inside should still be green.
Use your nose as well as your eyes. The smell of hay will give a clue to quality. It should smell good, not musty, sour or moldy. The flakes should separate easily from the bale and not be stuck together. Moldy hay, or hay that heated excessively after being baled, will usually be heavy, stuck together and dusty. Good hay will be uniformly green and sweet smelling, with no brown spots or moldy portions.
Unless you are buying directly out of the field after baling, try to buy hay that has been protected from weather by a tarp or hay shed. Rain can ruin baled hay by causing mold. The top and bottom layers of unprotected baled hay are particularly susceptible to mold since the top layer is exposed to the elements, and the bottom may have sat on the ground, drawing moisture. Wet hay not only weighs more, adding to the cost, but will likely be moldy.
Storing Hay for Feed
Storing hay is not a problem if you are buying only a few weeks worth at a time and can put a tarp over it, but storage over several months requires more protection to avoid spoilage. Regardless of storage time, you will need a way to keep it from getting wet or drawing moisture from the ground. A hay shed is ideal because you can build up the floor with gravel for good drainage so the entire haystack is kept dry.
If you don’t have any type of roof to put your hay under, you can create a well-drained area (by building up the floor with gravel or wooden pallets) and cover the stack with tarps. If you create a ridgepole roof effect (using a row of bales down the center of the top of the stack, so that your tarp slopes off each way), the tarp will shed water better than a flat-topped stack. Also, you will be less apt to have spoilage from a leak in the tarp if the water can run off readily.
If you have a year’s worth of hay stored, keep in mind that long storage time reduces nutritional levels of protein and vitamin A. Always buy hay that was harvested under good conditions, then keep it dry and out of the sunlight so it will keep better. Always stack it so that the oldest bales will be used first.
If you are in need of good quality hay, we carry a nice Timothy hay for purchase at the store.