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Good eye for hay gets you in the ballgame

Editor’s note: I judged 50 4-H hay exhibits at the 2010 Morgan County fair. To see how visual judging paired up with actual value, I asked Chris Parker to core-sample various flakes. Parker sent samples to Litchfield Analytical Services, Litchfield, Mich., for near-infrared (NIR) analysis.

Good eye for hay gets you in the ballgame

Editor’s note: I judged 50 4-H hay exhibits at the 2010 Morgan County fair. To see how visual judging paired up with actual value, I asked Chris Parker to core-sample various flakes. Parker sent samples to Litchfield Analytical Services, Litchfield, Mich., for near-infrared (NIR) analysis.

‘Your visual inspection matched up pretty well with the results from the lab,” says Chris Parker, Morgan County Extension ag educator. Parker raises hay and has also judged 4-H hay contests.

“Of course, most all of these represent good hay. Most people are going to bring the best hay they have.”

That said, however, rainfall early in the summer messed up harvesting patterns. Some first cuttings were delayed, and some second cuttings were delayed, too. That tends to result in more mature hay with more stems, Parker notes. The more mature the hay, the lower the feed values you can expect.

Key Points

• Someone trained to look at hay can do a reasonable job of estimating value.

• Near-infrared lab testing puts numbers to feed value.

• Mixed grass and legume hay cut correctly can have high RFV numbers.

Visual inspection

“When I’m looking at hay visually, I’m looking for color, odor and stage of maturity,” he says. “If it’s mixed grass and legume hay and the grass was cut fairly young, you can get very good hay. This set of samples bears that out. If it’s a grass and it’s already headed, it will have less feed value. If it’s headed with seeds in the head, it will be even less.

“I also look for weeds. And I look for the amount of leafiness. When you’re comparing two good hays to each other visually, sometimes you just have to guess.”

The original plan for this exercise was to pull samples. Parker opted to core flakes. Every Extension office should have a hay probe that fits either a brace and bit or an electric drill, he notes. “You just increase your odds of getting a more accurate sample by coring,” he says.

Typically, he will pull 12 to 15 cores of the same lot of hay, either small square bales or large round bales. In this case, he tried to get five cores from each flake.

Review the numbers

“The first thing that stood out was how dry these samples were,” Parker says. “Most only had 10% to 12% moisture. If you’re baling at 15% to 20% to preserve leaves and get hay in the barn, typically the moisture content when you pull samples will be higher. Obviously, these flakes dried out more quickly out of the bale.”

Crude protein levels were also impressive, Parker says. They generally followed the pattern of the more legume in the mix, the higher the protein value, but not precisely. “Remember that the 4-H member selected what category to enter. It’s possible that some in the legume/mixed hay class had as much or more legume present as in the hay entered as straight legume. It’s very hard to get legume hay without some grass present.”

Next, Parker looks at acid detergent fiber, or ADF. It’s a good measure of how much stem, or fiber, is present. In general, the lower the ADF, the higher the quality.

The specialist also looks at total digestible nutrients, or TDN, a measure of energy content. The bottom-line number is relative feed value, or RFV. Usually, the higher the number, the greater the overall feed value. RFVs of 130 or above represent very good-quality hay, Parker notes.

Champion, reserve mixed hay entries run neck and neck

The legume mixed hay chosen as champion in the 4-H intermediate age division came back at 15% protein, 30.5% acid detergent fiber, 67.8 total digestible nutrients, and a relative feed value of 131.5, all on a dry matter basis. “That’s excellent hay that you could feed to about anything,” Chris Parker says.

The only thing is that the reserve champion produced slightly better numbers. The crude protein was 16.9%, ADF at 29.9%, TDN at 68.4% and RFV at 134.53.

“Those are identical for all practical purposes,” Parker says. “The difference is insignificant.”

In another pair of grass hays, there was more visual difference. And the numbers bore it out. The champion in the advanced 4-H division came in at 13% protein, 34.8% ADF, 63.6% TDN and 110.38 RFV. “Those are still very high numbers for grass hay,” Parker says. “When you’re over an RFV of 100, you’re better than average.”

For comparison, Parker tested the reserve champion grass hay that appeared more mature. Crude protein came in at 11.1%, ADF at 37.8%, TDN at 60.2% and RFV at 95.26. “It’s still a useful hay if fed correctly,” Parker concludes.

Map out best feeding schedule

Suppose you’ve got a variety of types of hay in the barn, cut at different times and baled under different conditions. You test each lot, sending it to the lab of your choice, and get back the results. How would you decide what to feed when?

“That grass hay with the 95.26 feed value would be good for dry cows,” Parker says. “I would feed it early in the gestation cycle for cows or sheep.

“I would save the best hay, those with RFVs of 130 or more, for the last third of pregnancy, or for feeding to lactating animals,” he concludes.

Feeding moldy hay? Take care

One legume sample earned a red ribbon and was pulled for testing because it was apparently baled a bit wet. There was a slight musty odor and moldy dust when shaken. Surprisingly, it scored relatively well.

“Crude protein was 16.5%, ADF was 37.5%, probably because it was a bit stemmy, but TDN was 58.9, and the RFV was 111.88. That’s still pretty good hay,” Chris Parker says.

Parker adds some words of caution, however. “We sampled a flake pulled from a bale open for several days. If that hay remained in bales in the barn, it might deteriorate more and not score as well,” he notes.

“You would also need to be careful what you fed it to. Horse people wouldn’t want it.”

Whiff of mold: This hay may have been baled a bit wet, but its feed value still ranked above normal.


Best of show: This good-looking mixed-grass hay was named champion of its division.


Better numbers: The reserve champion hay actually put up better numbers, but the difference wasn’t significant, Chris Parker says.


Champion bale: For pure grass hay, here’s one worth bidding on at an auction. It’s RFV topped 110.


Find a fit: This grass hay with more stem and fiber could still fit into your feeding program.

This article published in the November, 2010 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.

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