by Haley Ruffner
12 September 2022 | [email protected] | 307.205.6628
Decoding the terms used to quantify hay sometimes feels like it requires a degree in linguistics: cow or feeder quality, dairy quality, horse quality, premium, hot, stemmy, steam-baled—what do these mean? What determines if hay is horse quality or cow quality? Do different baling methods affect the end product? How does growing location affect its quality? What makes a product a good value? While it would be impossible in one article to go completely into depth on each of these questions, a brief overview of these terms can help you to better interpret hay sale ads and determine which products are best for your animals.
These questions become even more difficult to find answers to when you factor in the fact that most horse people and farmers have strong opinions that don’t always match up with what animal nutritionists or scientific studies report. That’s not to say these strong opinions are wrong, necessarily—everyone who’s been in the industry for long enough has found what works for them, and most are dedicated to sticking with that. Exploring other options means introducing an unknown factor into the mix, and despite what a vet or study might say, implementing something new into your animals’ diets that you haven’t yet seen the effects of firsthand can be a nerve-wracking experience. Likewise, superstitions and half-truths along with outright myths circulate in the realm of animal nutrition to the point where it is sometimes difficult to uncover the truth.
The hierarchy of how hay is classified in terms of overall appearance and quantity starts with horse quality at the top, followed by dairy quality, and then cow/feeder quality. Horse quality hay will be between 10 and 15% moisture, ideally have good color, be free of mold and dust, and have been harvested at the boot stage for optimal nutrients and digestibility. Dairy quality hay will usually be tested, but its aesthetics won’t be as important—it may be bleached, possibly a bit dusty, been harvested slightly past maturity, or have been rained on slightly in the stack. Dairy farmers generally have strict requirements for protein and RFV, but aesthetics are less important for hay labeled dairy quality. Cow and feeder quality hay is often fed in a TMR mixer, meaning that the hay will be chopped and combined with other feeds to create an exact ration of nutrients. This hay is often used as filler, so quality is usually less important than quantity. Even below cow and feeder quality is mulch quality, which is a label for hay that is so far degraded by time and moisture that it is unfit to feed to any animal and can be used for erosion control.
Other markers of quality are generally confined to horse hay, as horses’ digestive systems are so much more delicate than cows’. Hay labeled “hot” refers to alfalfa that tests very high in protein, which indicates that it may be too rich for some horses, especially if they’re used to grass hay. Some hay in the market may be advertised as being too hot for horses and is instead pushed towards the dairy market. This is not to say that hay labeled “hot” is inherently dangerous for horses; rather, it may just need to be fed gradually and mixed with other hays to avoid overfeeding or possible colic—if fed immediately as the sole basis of a horse’s diet with no transitioning over or less-rich feeds mixed in, it can certainly cause issues, as can any other quick change in a horse’s feed.
Stemminess in hay is a measure of maturity—hay that was harvested past its optimal boot stage will have thicker stems and be higher in fiber, sometimes to the point that most horses won’t eat it. Coastal hays like Bermudagrass will not become stemmy in the same way that alfalfa will, but it will become very low in protein and so high in fiber that its stems will act like hair in a drain, clogging a horse’s system and potentially causing colic. Some hay, like orchard grass or brome, tends to be an overall softer hay with less of a tendency to have thick, unpalatable stems. While the protein to fiber ratio on most hays will decrease when harvested past maturity, hay that may no longer be palatable for horses can still be valuable for cow hay.
Methods of farming also vary across the nation, resulting in distinctly different end products. On the east coast, where water tends to be more abundant, hay must usually sit out much longer to dry, resulting in the end product not being as bright green as Western hay typically is. In contrast, farmers in the hot and dry West often cut hay at night to avoid it becoming too dry and brittle too quickly. One piece of modern technology that farmers use now to extend their available hours for cutting hay in arid climates is a steam baler, which adds moisture to cut hay to ensure the bales end up containing optimum moisture levels (somewhere between 10 and 15%) for good leaf retention.
As methods of baling shift from east to west, so too does the hay quality. Due to faster drying times, more consistent irrigation, and general lack of weeds, Western hay has the reputation of being a premium product—it’s bright green, has better leaf retention from being baled more quickly, and usually won’t contain as many weeds as hay grown on the east coast, where weeds and hay alike grow more easily and abundantly. Many racetracks and show barns on the east coast will only feed Western hay, regardless of how much freight drives the prices up. However, while there is usually some nutritional superiority in Western hay, for the average horse owner feeding a hay that was grown more locally makes better nutritional and financial sense. Hay grown anywhere—as long as the soil has proper nutrients to produce quality grass, it was cut in the boot stage, baled at safe moisture levels, and stored in a way that keeps it dry—can be quality hay.
The value of a product is a balance between whichever factors are most important to the customer—some people value aesthetics above all else and will pay exorbitant freight for something they perceive to be top quality. That’s not to say that product is not a good value for them; rather, they weighed their options, chose their priorities, and found a product that fits that need. For others who may be feeding a small herd of easy keepers, the best value product is the one they can get at the lowest price—they may not be worried about high protein levels or color in the hay, they’re just looking for a safe option to fill their hay loft and give their horses something to chew on when pastures are sparse. It’s difficult to put an overall generic monetary amount on what good value in hay entails since every horse owner has a different set of criteria on what they’re looking for. There are trade-offs in any product, but looking at a hay analysis for nutrition, cost of freight if applicable, cost of the product itself, and deciding which factors are important to you can help to determine where you stand on what entails a good value to you.
The plethora of options and wide range in pricing within the hay market, combined with the fact that almost everyone has a strong opinion on which product is best for their animals, can make navigating the market difficult. Learning how to understand a hay analysis (see Quality Analysis article), consulting with your vet to decide which factors are important for your horse, and having a good understanding of what the buzzwords around hay mean can help you to make an informed decision.
Haley Ruffner is a Sales Broker for Aden Brook and an accomplished writer on the topic of horses.