NDSU Extension Service - Mercer County

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Evaluating Forage Quality is Important

evaluating forage quality, sensory evaluation

Submitted by Craig Askim, Extension Agent/Agriculture and Natural Resources

Producers in the county are busy putting  up as much forage as possible before winter hits. However; even with rain many will be short on the amount of forage they need to get them through the feeding months and be faced with purchasing hay. When this occurs and hay supplies are short, producers look at purchasing hay without giving some time to think about what they are actually buying. This article gives some tips on what to look for.

This year hay is in short supply and many grain crops have been set back due to drought or hail damage.  This may create a market place for a variety of interesting forage options to get cows through the winter.  Using alternative forage resources such as grazing or feeding baled crops and residues or using cereal hays may be just the angle you are bending.  Before you load up the hay wagon there are some things you should consider.

Sensory evaluation includes evaluating the amount of leaf to stem material and uses sight, texture, and smell.  The leafy portion of the plant provides the greatest amount of digestible nutrients.  A greater leaf to stem ratio can indicate higher quality forage.  Bright colored forage indicates proper cure and hay will likely have good palatability for livestock.  However, color alone may be deceiving, sun bleaching is not as damaging to forage quality as rain, both of which cause discoloration.  Rain can leach soluble nutrients, thus lowering the nutrient content of the forage.  Smell can indicate forages that have heated or may have mold problems.  Sensory appraisal is important but should not be the stand-alone evaluation method.  Sensory evaluations should accompany a nutrient analysis of the forage, by wet chemistry or NIRS (near infrared reflectance spectroscopy).

Determining the chemical composition is essentially the nutrition label or “feed tag” for the forage.  Forage quality testing is important as a management and marketing tool.  Selling hay with a hay test allows the seller and buyer to find a price that makes sense.  A nutrient analysis helps the end user organize the forage supplies to best match the cow’s nutrient requirements at various stages of production.  Another advantage when purchasing hay is not purchasing excess nutrients or paying for nutrients not in the bale. 

Another over looked item is bale weight.  Hay is frequently sold by the “package” or bale.  Not all packages are the same and can range from 1000 to 1500 lbs. or more for large round bales.  Not all bales have the same dry matter content—it is expensive to purchase and haul water in a bale!  Consider purchasing and selling hay on a dry weight basis instead of a package basis.

Sensory and laboratory analysis and known bale weights take the guesswork out of purchasing, selling, and feeding forage and allows for equitable pricing and the ability to meet the nutrient requirements of your livestock. 

Source: Chanda Engel
NDSU Livestock Research Specialist

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