Of all the feedstuffs livestock consume, hay is probably one of the most variable in terms of quality. Hay can look good and still be low quality, or look bad and be good quality. The best way to know for sure is to have it tested. However, many people never take the time to send off a sample for analysis.
What are the factors affecting the quality of hay?
Stage of Maturity: This refers to the growth stage of the plant at the time of harvest. Stage of maturity is by far the most important factor influencing quality. The younger the plant, the higher the quality. I've actually seen common bermudagrass test greater than 20 percent crude protein on a dry matter basis. If you want to harvest or purchase good quality hay, pay particular attention to maturity. In southern Oklahoma, we can expect to harvest decent quality bermudagrass if it's cut prior to mid June. If you delay much beyond that time, quality rapidly begins declining with the first cutting.
Leafiness: This refers to the proportion of leaves versus stems present and is also related to the stage of maturity, especially in grass hays. The younger the plant, the greater the proportion of leaves. As a grass matures, stems increase or are elevated, thus decreasing the quality of the forage.
Color: Color is not always a good indicator of quality. Color often tells us more about the curing process of the hay than its quality. Hay that is bright green was typically cut at a desirable stage of maturity and rapidly cured. Yellow color is often a result of sun bleaching and does not seriously reduce quality. Brownish hay is usually a result of excessive moisture during the curing process, thus indicating some degree of fermentation. Dark brown or black is often an indicator that the hay was exposed to rain or high humidity and is usually accompanied by a distinctive musty odor. Overall, slight discolorations from sun bleaching, dew or moderate fermentation are not as serious as the loss of green color from maturity, rain damage or excessive heating or fermentation.
Foreign Matter: This typically includes materials that are wasted in the feeding process. Weeds are the biggest problem in our area, but sometimes, injurious materials such as threeawn, sandburs and poisonous plants can be found. Always inspect hay for foreign matter.
Odor and Condition: Use the smell of newly mown hay as your standard of comparison. Hays with off odors such as mildew, mustiness or rotten odors often indicate reduced quality and acceptance by livestock. And finally, soft, pliable hays are typically more palatable than hard, firm hays.
Remember, stage of maturity is the most important factor affecting hay quality and will also affect leafiness, color and condition. However, the only way to truly know the quality of hay you plan to buy, sell or feed is to have it tested.