Farm Girl Confidential: Hay—Food for Fodder

By | September 15, 2014
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sheep eat hay

Hay: Food for Fodder

For a livestock farmer, fall is the time to fill the hayloft with the best quality hay available before winter sets in. Though it might sound straightforward, it’s not!

Purchasing hay can be like a shot in the dark, as you are never quite sure what you’ll get. There are significant differences in the variety, quality and availability of hay, which can make feeding your livestock either a time-consuming chore or a smooth-flowing operation. And because of its bulk and the care required of any fresh, dried product affected by climatic conditions, the storing of hay takes some consideration and planning.

My parents bought me a few goats and a horse when I was about seven years old. My folks weren’t from a farming background and they had little more education in caring for livestock than I did. Once a week my mom drove off to the feed store in her station wagon to pick up hay for the animals. Four or five bales, tailgate down, hay flying everywhere.

It wasn’t until years later when I bought my first sheep that the question of what hay really was popped into my mind. Grass, right? It’s not always quite so simple.

Not all hay is grass, and not all animals like, need or can even utilize the same type of hay. Although grass feed is ideal—and grazing animals on pasture six months of the year can’t be beat—hay is the mainstay diet for most livestock on Cape Cod, as elsewhere, and its nutritional content, quality and price is of utmost importance.

There are three types of hay generally used to feed livestock: grass, legume and mixed, a varied combination of grasses and legumes. It can be sold by the ton, bale, large round bales, haylage, silage and even in pellet form. The large bales are the most economical, but are not usually considered “premium” hay such as can be the case with small, square bales, and must be moved with machinery, which is not always an option for smaller farms. Buying the small bales is much more expensive, but is the best option if you’re looking for smaller quantities of high-quality hay that a single person can handle.

In the Northeast the types of grasses used to make hay are usually orchard, brome, timothy, reed canary grass, Italian ryegrass, quack grass, junegrass and fescue. And then there are the broadleaves used to make hay like alfalfa, red clover, Alsike clover, vetch and birds foot trefoil. Some hays are a combination of both. And, that combination becomes significant when choosing a particular hay for a particular animal.

Milk cows need a high calcium and protein hay like alfalfa, as does any lactating ruminant, such as sheep or goats, to help supplement the milk supply and the health of the animal and its young. Mature beef cattle can get by on fairly low quality hay, whereas younger calves need a much higher quality hay. Young animals have tender mouths and cannot chew coarse hay very well, whether grass or alfalfa. They do best with fine, soft hay that’s cut before bloom stage; it not only contains more nutrients, it is also much easier to eat. Sheep and goats prefer fine, leafy hay and can not eat coarse hay. Early cut grass hay with a mix of clovers and vetch with a little alfalfa is usually the best feed for sheep (or at least they think so). Mature sheep can get by on a lesser good-quality grass hay, but lambs do better with a legume harvested while still growing so that it has finer stems. I raise sheep to produce a premium hand spinners fleece and feed the best hay I can find to both the adults and lambs.

Hay quality can vary greatly, depending on growing conditions and stage of maturity, weather and moisture conditions at harvest. The things that can affect nutritional value include plant species, fertility of soil, harvesting methods (whether the hay was conditioned or crimped to dry faster and lose fewer leaves and nutrients during drying) and also curing time.

Some hay is treated with desiccants and preservatives, two totally different types of products with different modes of action. A desiccant is a compound applied to the hay at cutting to increase drying rate and the other is a preservative that is applied to hay as it is baled to allow baling of wetter-than-normal hay without spoilage during storage to prevent mold. This treated hay does not tend to hold its green color well and can create an odor and texture not always accepted readily by some animals.

So to just buy “any old hay” is like playing Russian roulette with your animal’s health and well-being and your wallet, with the final results showing up in the product you are producing. Finding good hay is also quite time-consuming, never mind a huge yearly investment. Livestock producers in other parts of New England often have enough land to graze their animals three quarters of the year but still need to feed hay during the winter. Many grow and put up their own hay, selecting the grasses and legumes they need, something near impossible to do here with the high cost of land and scarcity of large tracts of pasture for both haying or grazing.

Historically on Cape Cod, before subdivisions and the huge growth in population, livestock grazing was common in certain areas such as Sandwich to Barnstable where lands were richer. Back in the 1600s in every town, certain types of land were never divided or sold to anyone because such lands had no value: beaches or beach upland, broken lands in areas of shifting sands partly covered with a growth of scrub or beach grass. These areas were sometimes called general fields, which meant that pasturing was permitted, although at certain times of the year grazing animals had to be fenced out to protect the growth and hold the sand. During the 1800s laws were enacted to keep farmers from grazing these beach lands when livestock began eating the new plantings of beach grass that had been planted to hold the dunes.

Producing “grass fed” meat or dairy products on Cape Cod today is a real challenge, although there are a handful of farmers on the Cape who are truly devoted to the grass-fed revolution and are raising animals the best they can on grass. Some are even transporting their livestock to lush, summer grazing grounds in other parts of New England, like Laura McDowell-May of Seawind Meadows Farm in Dennis, who raises Scottish Highland cattle. Others, like Bill Kaser, a local veterinarian and sheep farmer in Brewster, and Tim Friary of Cape Cod Organic Farm in Barnstable (heirloom pigs) are investing in extensive rolls of semi-permanent electric fencing for successful rotational grazing. But even still, hay is on the menu for most animals during the long winter months.

The culture and feed value of hay has been extensively examined by agriculturists since science was able to chemically evaluate it. I have a book in my possession that I cherish. Published in 1869 by the New York State Agricultural Society it dedicates almost the entire 800 pages to the description, structure, analysis and culture of grasses, with fold-out etchings of over 70 varieties.

Requesting a “Forage Analysis” is the safest way to buy large quantities of hay, and is great for a large production operation but not always feasible for the small farmer. It’s a lot of added time for both the farmer and hay grower, and just trying to understand the analysis sheet can be a challenge. With a forage analysis, the hay is tested for a number of things: Moisture, Protein, Acid Detergent Fiber, Neutral Detergent Fiber, Total Digestible Nutrients and Relative Feed Value.

John Kirchhoff, a mid-size Katahdin sheep farmer and soil and water conservation district manager in north central Missouri, explains it like this: “For moisture (you know, like water), if it says 26% ‘as-fed basis’ that means each pound of forage is 26% water and 74% is dry matter (hay). Put simply, that 50-pound bale of soft, green hay consists of 37 pounds of hay and 13 pounds of water. By comparison, that dry, slightly crunchy 14% moisture bale has 43 pounds of hay and only seven pounds of water in a 50-pound bale. This is pretty insignificant until you calculate how much water you’ve bought over the course of a winter.”

Protein (CP) is actually a measurement of nitrogen. Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) refers to parts of the plant cell wall made up of lignin and cellulose (something like cardboard), which is highly indigestible. The lower the ADF number, the better the hay quality. With Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) numbers, the lower the number, the more forage the animal can consume. The Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) score is an estimate of the percentage of the forage that is digestible, and lastly, Relative Feed Value (RFV) is an index that allows you to place a numerical value on the overall feed value of the forage.

So when buying hay, you should go for the highest relative feed value (RFV) you can find, right? Well, yes and no. Knowledgeable farmers, says Kirchhoff, liken hay to gasoline. “High priced, high-octane gas is better than low-octane gas if your car needs it, but not all cars need it. If your car doesn’t, you’re wasting your money.” Nutritional needs of an animal are dependent upon the age and how much “work” the animal is doing, and some animals like sheep and goats have dexterous little lips that can pick out prime morsels in even the worst hay to reach their nutritional needs.

In reality the chances of getting a hay analysis or even understanding the analysis if you got one are slim for most small farmers and really not always necessary for experienced small operation livestock producers. Early cut, soft and green with a fresh smell is probably going to get you pretty close to what you need for high maintenance animals (dairy, young or, say, wool producing animals) and a cheaper, lesser-quality hay perhaps for others. And just as important is building a relationship with a reputable hay producer or seller.

Perhaps even more challenging than finding good hay is the price you have to pay for it. Since we can’t grow hay here due to land and climate restrictions, it has to be shipped, and we all know about fuel prices, among other factors. Whether you go get it yourself or have it delivered to your barn, it’s really all the same.

Feed costs are the single largest expenditure for livestock producers, whether for meat, dairy, breeding stock, wool or show animals, and understanding nutrient requirements and meeting them economically is critical to any profitable livestock production.

Veronica Worthington is an organic farmer who grows heirloom vegetables for market and breeds heritage sheep for wool in West Dennis.

Article from Edible Cape Cod at
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