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How to ID a blue ribbon bale of hay

John Walter Updated: 11/10/2011 @ 10:24am

With hay prices rising across the country, the ability to judge hay quality is an increasingly critical skill -- both for buyers and producers. Hay prices, though varying by region, quality and package, are sharply higher this fall compared to a year ago, Agriculture.com sources reported this week. Prices have as much as doubled in some areas, due to acreage shifts and a poor growing season.

If you’re a buyer, getting valuable hay in the barn and under cover for winter means more than conducting laboratory tests, says hay judging expert Dr. Steve Fransen (photo, right),  forage crops specialist at Washington State University.

Fransen, who has been researching hay quality and visually judging hay for more than 25 years, spends each summer and fall touring events in the Pacific Northwest to judge hay contests, interact with growers and buyers, and explain his approach to hay valuation. Between tour stops this month, Fransen talked about hay quality judging, allowing that every event is a new learning experience for him.

“Every time I go to a hay contest, I learn something new. It’s a dynamic process,” Fransen told Agriculture.com.

A starting point in judging hay is to focus on the needs of the end-user--the animals, he said.

“I am sometimes accused of being biased for the livestock consumer rather than the hay grower,” he said. “This is probably true, although I try to be honest as to the real value of the hay for the intended customer, the animals.

“Research for many years has taught us that animals respond to good feed quality,” he said. “There is a range of feed qualities, but there is also a range of animals with different feed quality needs.”

How to rate hay

In hay evaluation guidelines developed by Fransen and colleagues at Utah State University and Oregon State University, “sensory scores” of hay are used together with laboratory scores to rate hay for its quality and place in the market.

“A lot of folks have their hay tested for fiber, crude protein and mineral levels,” Fransen said. “On the other side of it, there are other ways of looking at that bale of hay from a visual perspective. Visual tests complement the lab tests.”

Fransen says he examines “simple things,” such the location of bale ties.  More complex issues include the color of the rachis in the seed head for an assessment of the stage of maturity of the hay.

The guidelines he uses in judging contests include:

  • Maturity stage. With greater maturity in grasses and legumes come increases in fiber and reductions in digestible energy and protein. 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, Fransen looks 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.

  • Odor. “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 “carmelization” suggests that heating has occurred but that the bale has probably has dried out. A musty odor means it’s moldy. A vinegar-like odor might mean use of preservatives to reduce heating and spoilage of wet hay. “These things are important, because heating ties up some of the protein to the cell wells. And, the lab test might say high protein, but if you smell carmelization the test might not be accurate.”

  • Foreign material. Franzen ticked off a long list of odd items that he’s found in hay, including things like rattlesnake hides, machinery parts, and manure. Mainly, he looks for the presence of noxious weeds, dust, dirt, mold spores and such.  “All these things give the bale a discounted value,” he says.

  • Bale functionality. Before he even opens up a bale, Fransen studies its packaging: how tight are the bale ties, are the ties spaced correctly, how dense is the bale, what is its weight 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 said. When you do open up the bale, go straight to the center, he says. “That’s the last place to dry out, where the molds are.”

  • Texture and condition. “Look at the condition 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 you something. Are the leaves attached and retained on the stem, or do they fall off right away.  You may have the leaves in the bale, but when you open it up they all fall to the ground,” he says. “Chemical tests won’t tell you these things.”

  • Color. 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. Is the hay bleached, streaked or brown? These cues can tell you what happened during the drying and storage process.”

For more information: Hay Quality Sensory Evaluation Guidelines (T.C. Griggs, Utah State University; S.C. Franzen, Washington State University; and M.G. Bohle, Oregon State University.)

Photos by Kate Halstead, Washington State University Extension

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