With hay prices rising across the country, the ability to judge hay quality is an increasingly critical skill for buyers and producers.
If you're a buyer, getting valuable hay in the barn means more than conducting laboratory tests, says hay-judging expert Steve Fransen, forage crops specialist at Washington State University.
Fransen, who has been researching hay quality for more than 25 years, uses six criteria for visually judging hay.
1. Bale functionality
Before he even opens up a bale, Fransen studies its packaging and notes how tight the bale ties are, if the ties are spaced correctly, how dense the bale is, what its weight is relative to how it's stored, and who's handling it.
“Is it a good solid bale? I don't like banana-shape bales,” he says. “When you do open up the bale, go straight to the center. That's the last place to dry out, and that's where the molds are.”
2. Maturity stage
The ideal stage of maturity depends on the type of animal and market you're targeting, Fransen says.
“If judging timothy hay intended for a domestic market, for example, look for the seed heads to be just emerging out of boot stage. In alfalfa, you're going to get premium points for bud stage. In orchardgrass, boot stage is best.
“In evaluating a bale, always smell it,” he says. “Does it have a clean, sweet odor, or has something happened in there?”
An off odor of caramelizing suggests heating has occurred but the bale probably has dried out. A musty odor means it's moldy. A vinegar-like odor might mean preservatives were used to reduce spoilage of wet hay.
4. Foreign material
Fransen ticks off a long list of odd items he's found in hay. Mainly, he looks for the presence of noxious weeds, dust, dirt, mold spores, and other foreign matter.
5. Texture and condition
“Look at the conditions of the hay. Is it soft and pliable? Or is it sticks,” he says. “If I put my face into the hay and it feels like needles, that tells me something. Are the leaves attached and retained on the stem? Or do they fall off right away? The leaves may be in the bale, but when you open it up, do they all fall to the ground?” he says.
The color of hay isn't strongly tied to feeding value, but it can show the presence of plant diseases, molds, leaf loss, and other conditions. “The last thing I look at is the color of the bale,” Fransen says. “It's the least important factor, but do look for natural green color. Notice if the hay is bleached, streaked, or brown. These cues can tell you what happened during the drying and storage process.”