Home Homesteading Understanding Hay Quality

Understanding Hay Quality

by Anthony

hayAll hay is not harvested equally, and depending on farming practices, hay can be either low or high quality. Low quality hay is characterized by a poor nutrient content, and may contain impurities such as dust, dirt, mold or debris. One of the important factors that contributes to the quality of hay is the plants found in the fields. A field that is primarily weeds will yield lower quality hay than a field ripe with palatable grass. In addition, when harvesting conditions are not ideal or poor methods are used, it can cause a strong, high quality hay crop to go bad, possibly to the point of being unsafe for livestock consumption.

Stage of Harvest

Another important factor is the stage of harvest. The condition of the hay field should always be analyzed a minimum of one week prior to cutting if harvesting is being considered. This one week period provides the best time frame for controlling the hay quality in regards to the maturity of the plant. It’s also the best time to take a look and analyze what is going on in the field itself. Troubling concerns that could affect the quality of the hay, such as weed overgrowth or insect infestation will be noticeable during this time.

Types of Hay

Different types of hay are recommended for different scenarios. Hay should be targeted to meet the needs of your livestock. The proper maturity age for cutting the hay depends on the type of animals who will be consuming the hay. For example, cows with calves and mares with fowls will require young-cut plants that have not yet matured, as they will be higher in protein, meeting the young animal’s dietary requirements. Cows that are lactating require the highest quality hay that is higher in protein and other nutrients. This high protein hay, however, would not be ideal for horses or beef cattle. Working horses would require mid range hay, and hay at the lower end of the mid range would be acceptable for idle horses. True low quality hay, such as occurs when hay is contaminated with dirt, mold or debris, or as a result of weather damage, would only be suitable for beef cattle who are not lactating.

Growing Time

Making sure the hay is harvested in a timely fashion and not left to grow too long is crucial to maintaining proper quality. Determining the length of time to grow can be challenging, and some commercial hay farmers rely on hay prediction sticks to measure the length of the stem and estimate the relative feed value based on the buds and open flower stages. Many cattleman and hay producers simply rely on determining the relative maturity of the hay by examining the plant. For example, to determine the maturity of alfalfa, hay farmers need only examine the plant for buds and eventually flowers. In the case of grass hay, you would try to find the boot stage or the seed heads, which would indicate a higher stage of maturity. This process can be challenging when trying to determine the maturity of mixed hay, such as alfalfa and grass together. This is because most times, one of the species will be more mature than the others, which can make it difficult to determine the best time for cutting the hay.

Time of Day

The time of day that the hay is cut is also significant in determining hay quality. Late afternoon cutting will lead to hay that has a higher nutrient content than if it was cut earlier in the day. This is because the plants will continue to accumulate starch and sugar throughout the day, as a result of photosynthesis. Those nutrients are then used up during the night time hours while thy grow. In order to harvest hay that contains the highest nutrient levels possible, it should therefore be cut later in the afternoon. The timing would be something to consider when dealing with special needs of livestock. For example, early morning hay would be best for a horse that suffers from insulin resistance, as the early morning hay will contain less starches and lower sugar levels.

Moisture Levels

Moisture levels should also be considered during harvesting, which ties in with the time of day when it is cut. hay that is too moist is more prone to molding, and if it is too dry, the hay is more prone to damage to the leaves during baling. When harvesting hay in a dry climate, early morning baling is preferred, in hopes of retaining some of the morning dew to minimize leaf damage or loss due to dryness. In more arid climates, it is best to bale in the evening. This allows some of the morning dew to have dried up just enough, as opposed to in the mornings when the hay can become over saturated with dew.


Most equipment used for cutting the hay will also crimp and condition it at the same time. This allows the hay to dry faster, making it ready to be baled rather quickly. This is ideal, as the sooner it is baled, the less risk of damage fro weather or other conditions. The less time it takes to bale, the more nutrients are retained and the higher the hay quality. For this reason, timely cutting and timely baling are of equal importance.

When harvesting hay, determine the quality of hay you need and be sure to follow the practices necessary to achieve the proper type and quality yoou desire.

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