Grass is the cheapest source of feed for any livestock enterprise and effective utilisation of grass and its management is the key to getting the most of your grassland. Ruminant animals depend on grass as a major source of energy and protein as well as vitamins and minerals. However, the grass would always not be readily available for the livestock to feed on, hence the need for hay.

Hay is grass, legumes, or other herbaceous plants that have been cut, dried, and stored for use as animal fodder, particularly for grazing animals such as cattle, horses, goats, and sheep. Hay making is the process of turning green, perishable forage into a product that can be safely stored and easily transported without danger of spoilage, while keeping nutrient loss to a minimum.

The goal of haymaking is to capture the nutrients in grass in a storable form to make them available as a forage feed in cold months. For a healthy and nutritious hay production, the following must be put into considerations.

TIMING

One of the most critical factors in making quality dry hay is timing. Producers need to time haymaking to coincide with the right stage of plant growth and weather conditions.

As plants mature, their lignin content (a component of fiber) increases and traps the nutrients within indigestible cell walls. Although cutting hay early will result in lower yields, the increase in nutritive value will compensate for reduced yields.

The second, third and fourth cuttings that grow back are leafy and high in quality, and often harvested when the weather is hotter, making the hay easier to cure.

Cattle eating hay

SELECT A GOOD SPECIE

Good hay retains as many leaves as possible since the leaves contain two/thirds of the protein. Species like meadow foxtail do not have enough leaves to make a good hay. Harvest the crop at the best stage for maximum nutritive value and yield.

Forage crops produce more yield as they mature but nutritive value and palatability decrease at first bloom or heading (anthesis stage), so good hay must be harvested to balance the best quantity with quality.

Forage grass and legume performance varies depending on environmental conditions. No single forage type or variety is best in all environments.

The adaptation of a species, or its potential longevity in the field, is determined greatly by genetic cold-hardiness traits, and its tolerance of other site, soil, and use conditions. When selecting a forage species, or several species for use in a seed mixture, first consider their appropriateness for the intended use (pasture, hay, etc.) and for the expected longevity.

Among the other factors the affect the suitability of a forage species are:
• drought tolerance
• soil pH level
• fertilizer nutrient requirements
• soil drainage
• Intensity
• harvest or grazing

COLOUR
Green is more attractive to those taking care of the animals, and it also is a good indication of having vitamin A. Bleached colour indicates exposure to sunlight or rain and very likely oxidation of vitamin A, but other very essential nutrients are still there. Despite the colour, any type of hay needs to be supplemented with an appropriate vitamin-mineral mix.

RAIN
Reduction in hay quality due to rain is greatest after the forage is partially dried. Dry matter losses of 22 per cent were observed when alfalfa was exposed to 1 inch of rain after 1 day of drying. Similar hay without rain damage lost only 6.3 per cent.

Sugars and fructans are water soluble, so if the hay is rained on (or soaked in water), the overall non-structural carbohydrate (i.e. sugar) content will be reduced. However, good quality, rained on hay can actually benefit horses that are sensitive to forage sugar content. Bottom line, quality, rained on hay can be fed to horses.

CUTTING
Just knowing whether the hay is first, second or third crop does not predict nutrient content. The stage of maturity at which the hay was cut is the foundation of its nutritional value. Plants that grow under cooler temperatures build more digestible fiber. ‘Therefore, first crop hay may have more fiber, and the fiber will be easier for the horse to digest and use.

MOISTURE
Horse quality hay should be baled between 13 and 17 per cent moisture. Hay over 18 per cent is at risk of molding, and hay baled above 25 per cent is at risk of severe heat damage and serves as a potential fire hazard.

The use of propionic acid can be used to help prevent molding of hay at time of bailing, and is usually used when the hay is between 17 to 25 per cent moisture. Propionic acid treated hay can have a slight acidic smell, however, it is safe for horses.

MOLD
Virtually all feeds have some mold spores. The presence of excessive mold if inhaled by the animals may cause coughing, heaves or allergic reactions. Horses with heaves are often particularly sensitive to mold spores or dust. Before purchasing hay, be sure to inspect the inside of at least one bale.

If the hay has been stored inside and is not moldy, then the risk of it getting moldy is very low. Even though little research has been conducted on the effect of feeding moldy hay to horses, it is not recommended to feed horses moldy hays.

STORAGE
Hay storage losses vary greatly depending upon several factors, but storage technique is of utmost importance. Losses of dry hay stored inside a barn are usually of little concern. However, even for barn stored hay, losses rise sharply as moisture levels increase above 20 per cent, and losses from round bales stored outside under adverse conditions can be much larger.

The most important things to look for in a hay storage site are good ventilation, protection against moisture, and, ideally, a structure separate from the barn where your horses are housed (accumulating large quantities of hay, a highly flammable material, poses a significant risk to your horses in the event of a barn fire).

Never store hay near any flammable materials or objects that may be a source of heat, such as tractors or other farm machinery.

Similarly, hay should be stacked on wooden pallets or tires to allow air to circulate underneath and reduce contact with any damp surfaces. The bottom layer of bales should be stacked on their sides, with the twine facing sideways instead of upward. The unevenness of the surface promotes air circulation which reduces the chance of mold growth.

Although the greatest risk occurs during the first two weeks after hay has been stored, spontaneous combustion can remain a possibility for up to two months. Hay should be monitored daily for heat for at least two weeks, longer if you suspect the hay was wet when baled

FEEDING HAY
Cattle can waste up to 50 per cent of hay fed. It can be a challenge to know the best methods for feeding. While it is impossible to eliminate all waste, keeping the above considerations in mind and working to minimise waste by cattle after feeding can help you get the most out of your hay supply.

It is also important to keep bales directly off the ground, so they don’t wick moisture, and selecting an open area away from trees for stacking bales; this will help drying following wet periods. Arrange bales in a single layer with 3-4 ft. of space between rows to help improve air circulation around the bales.