Buying Hay - Why do my animals waste so much hay?
Most people who buy hay for their animals have had the experience of buying hay only to find their animals waste a large portion of each bale. There can be several reasons for this, but the two most common causes of waste are overfeeding the animal and low quality hay.
Many people overfeed, especially owners of horses, sheep, goats and llamas. These animals usually are not working for a living. They are often more companions and pets. We all like to see our animals in good shape with shiny coats. Until they get in this condition, it takes a good amount of feed. To maintain this condition it takes less feed. However, we get used to feeding two flakes of alfalfa so we keep feeding two flakes after they get in good condition. Warm weather takes less energy (less feed). Cold weather takes more energy (more feed). The point I am trying to make is that you have to adjust how much you feed many times a year. The amount of feed depends on body condition, weather and the animal’s work requirements. Also consider pregnancy, milking, training, etc. When an animal gets in good shape and you overfeed, they will “eat the best and leave the rest”.
Low quality hay
Low quality hay is a bit more complex because hay can look nice and green and still be of low quality. There are many varieties of hay and each variety feeds a little differently. Animals get used to a type of hay and usually do not adjust quickly to a change in diet. The most common cause of wasting hay is that the hay is overmature when it is cut.
Signs of overmature hay
The most common signs of overmature hay are seeds in the seed head, large stems and brown stems. In legumes look for lots of blossoms and only a small amount of leaf or fine material in the bale. The more of these conditions that you observe, the lower the quality of the hay.
Touch the hay
There are many other ways to determine the quality of hay, but they require more experience. With experience, you can feel hay and get a good idea of the quality. Low quality hay of all kinds will feel stiff, sharp, break like a small twig and will not fold. High quality hay is soft, requires pressure before you feel it poke your hand and will fold without breaking a long way down the stem. When it does break, it stays attached to the rest of the stem.
Taste the hay
With experience you can also taste hay and get a really good idea of the quality. Low quality hay will have a bitter taste. It will require a lot of saliva to soften it up before it can be chewed. It will feel very hard and probably poke your tongue and cheek. Your animals will have the same experience and not like the stems. High quality hay will have a neutral to sweet taste depending on the variety. It takes only a small amount of saliva to soften and will start breaking apart quickly as you chew on it. Your animals will have the same experience and eat the stems.
Test the hay
The best way to determine the quality of hay is to have the hay tested at a laboratory which will provide a chemical analysis of the important hay qualities. In order to interpret the results of a hay test, you need to understand a bit of terminology and the scale that grades hay quality.
I recommend that you buy hay from a grower who tests his hay, will provide the test results to you and will help you understand the terminology and grading scale. This may be the only way you have to assure that you are getting high quality hay until you gain the experience to look at hay, feel hay and taste hay to determine the quality for yourself.