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How to ID a blue ribbon bale of hay

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, 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

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

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

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.

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

  • 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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