Hay is a big expense for beef producers, so it is important to pay the right amount when purchasing.

To avoid overpaying, a producer must understand the product. During the 2018 Beef Cattle Short Course, Ted McCollum, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Beef Cattle Specialist emeritus, coordinated a nutrition management workshop and provided a slide presentation titled: “What is a bale of hay worth to a beef cattle producer?”

Information from the slides is discussed in the following paragraphs.

Regardless of the scarcity or abundance of hay, there are relative differences in value.

Value differs because of variations in hay nutrient content and in weights of individual bales or rolls. Bale weight varies among producers, forage types and even within a cutting.

It is best to price hay on a per ton basis to reflect the quantity being purchased.

The figures in Table 1 show that when buying hay at a per bale price, value per ton increases as bale weights decrease.

Determining bale weights also is useful for efficiently managing nutrition to meet the animal’s needs.

Value hay on nutrient content

The nutritional role of hay in cow-calf and stocker production is to provide energy and protein. An exception is that legume hay often is purchased primarily as a protein source, but it is also high in energy and calcium. Nutrient content that should impact hay prices are energy density and protein concentration. Energy density is either expressed as TDN (total digestible nutrients) or net energy. Crude protein (CP) and energy content affect supplement requirements, cost of the nutrition program and the relative value of hay.

Sampling hay for a laboratory nutrient analysis will provide estimates of energy density and protein content for use in comparing its relative value. A hay analysis also should include neutral detergent fiber (NDF) and acid detergent fiber (ADF) content. NDF has a negative relation to forage intake and ADF negatively affects digestion. Some analytical laboratories conduct in vitro digestibility and digestible NDF tests. Percent TDN often is estimated from ADF, but an in vitro digestibility test provides a better estimate. A smart buyer asks the seller for a laboratory hay nutrient analysis before agreeing to purchase.

Crude protein has a positive effect on intake and digestibility. A crude protein content of below 7% to 8% percent indicates depressed forage intake. Energy (TDN, NE), CP or both are used to develop a relative value of hay in dollars per ton. Cost of the nutrient is calculated for referee feeds and then compared with nutrient cost in different hays. These relative values provide a means to compare the dollar values of various feeds and forages based on energy and protein content.

For more accurate comparisons, consider both TDN and CP in determining relative values of hays and feeds. Calculations are more complex when considering two nutrients; however, spreadsheet programs are available to make the calculations easier. Consult with a beef cattle nutrition consultant or an extension specialist in determining which spreadsheet program will best fit your needs.

It is possible to reduce the quantity of fed hay by changing to alternate feeds. Relative values are useful in choosing the economical alternative. When considering an alternate energy source, use the current hay price for the comparison.

Forage and hay testing

Nutrient content values — specific to the current situation — improve purchase decisions. It is important to base decisions on forage and hay tests because nutrient concentration varies across months and years, climate, fertilization, grazing history and hay harvest management. Use of averages and historical or tabular data can lead to overfeeding, underfeeding, unwanted feed costs and production losses. Feeding plans based on average assumptions are wrong on the average. Remain observant of current conditions and have the capability of midstream redirection.

Forage and hay testing play an important part in the design of effective and economical nutrition programs, but reliable analysis requires good sampling. In hay sampling, best management practices dictate sampling from a side of the bale, not the end. Use a bale probe and sample 20% to 30% of the bales. Sample bales across the field or stack from the same cutting. Composite the cores into one sample and label each sample. When storing hay, attempt to segregate it by different cuttings and different fields.

When sampling pastures, hand pluck or cut forage in a manner representing the way cattle graze. A cow uses its tongue to grab a clump of grass and then bites it off. Take 10 or more samples per 40 acres from across the pasture and composite into one sample. Separate samples for areas under different management (fertilization, grazing), different forages, and trouble spots where forage production is less than in rest of the pasture.

Gather forage samples on rangeland in the same manner utilized for pasture sampling. Collect only plant species and parts consumed by cattle. Sample across the unit or identify a representative area and sample it. As with hay and pasture sampling, composite the samples.

When submitting samples to a laboratory, include an information sheet listing the nutrients for which to analyze. Crude protein is a routine analysis for all laboratories. Estimates of energy content (TDN, NE) are calculated from other lab procedures and usually are derived from acid detergent fiber (ADF). ADF is a routine analysis at feed and forage laboratories, but in vitro digestibility is not a routine test. Mineral analyses are useful if attempting to solve a production problem that is not explainable by protein and energy deficiencies. Most forage and feed laboratories can conduct comprehensive mineral analyses.

Ask for energy, protein and mineral concentrations when submitting manufactured feed for analysis. Variation is present among different loads of commodities such as corn, soybeans and other crops. Often, published tabular values are used in comparing nutrient content of different commodities. Tabular nutrient values of grains and oilseeds are more reliable than byproduct commodities.

The Texas A&M System Crop and Soil Sciences Laboratory in College Station routinely analyzes feed and forage samples. Examples of suitable commercial laboratories are Dairy One, ServiTech and SDK — they can be found online — plus other feed and forage laboratories.

Information on bale weights and nutrient content allow a hay buyer to better discern whether different hays are priced appropriately. Forage analyses and relative dollar value will improve the ability to buy at the right price and in turn, help control feeding costs.

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