When we started farming, buying hay was what hobby people did. Real farmers, producers that make their living on the farm, had enough land to pasture and winter feed their livestock. The droughts and floods of the last five years along with an upsurge of sustenance farmers (people that farm to feed themselves) have changed that. Today, 17 short years later, a lot more of us have to purchase part if not all of our winter feed.
The necessity to purchase hay started because while we increased our livestock base it was difficult to purchase a large enough land base to supply winter feed and pasture. We do have enough land base now, if weather conditions were right, but our fields are just not producing the quality or quantity of feed that we need after three years of drowning.
BUY ONLY AS MUCH AS YOU NEED
From our experience finding nutritious hay on a limited budget is difficult. By breaking up the decision making process into steps it made it a bit easier for us. The first step is to determine how much hay is required. After the hard culling decisions are made quantity required is calculated.
Because we have found that our small ruminants require a higher quality of hay for the winter than our cattle we concentrate on their needs first when purchasing hay. A good rule of thumb is that a sheep/ goat needs to consume four per cent of their bodyweight in hay per day. To determine how much hay we need we use this formula:
1.Approximate Weight of Ewe X 200 Days on Feed X Number of Ewes on Feed X 4% = Total Pounds Needed to Purchase.
2.Total Pounds Needed / Weight of Bales (most mixed grass/ alfalfa bales made with a NH 851 baler weigh 1,100 pounds) = Amount of Bales Needed.
BUY GOOD QUALITY
We can no longer buy lower quality hay and feed grain to raise the nutritional profile of the ration affordably. Unfortunately, shortages bring out the greed in people and it is at these times hay buyers have to be extra cautious.
Round bales are the easiest to store so they are what we have the most experience with. We have found that very few hay sellers provide feed tests to prospective buyer. Even if these test results are available it is a good idea to visually inspect the hay before purchasing it.
1)Use your nose. Moldy hay can still feed test quite well, but we wouldn t feed it. Moldy hay causes abortions, lung issues and is unhealthy for the humans too. If you smell mold walk away.
2)Stick your arm deep into the center of the bale. Is it hot? Heated hay has its protein and calcium depleted. The only year we had milk fever in our goats was the year we bought hay baled too wet.
3)Is the colour of the hay you pulled out of the middle still green, or is it bleached?
4)If it is alfalfa is it full of tough stems and flowers or are the stems soft and the blooms not really open? If it is coarse and full of flowers it will be low in protein and not worth the premium alfalfa commands. A good bale of orchard grass cut in its prime, before it goes to seed, can have more feed value.
5)Ask the hay seller for references.
6)Ask to see the field the hay came from and try and look for evidence of weeds such as foxtail barley, leafy spurge, Red Bartsia, just to name a few, that can either harm your livestock or populate your farm with an unwanted problem. One bad hay purchase years ago that had a portion of it full of foxtail barley cost us thousands of dollars in vet bills, livestock deaths and hours spent battling it out of our fields and winter pens.
7)Do the ultimate feed test. Take home an armful of hay and feed it to your pickiest animal that will be fed the hay. Many hay farmers have laughed when we take home a grocery bag of hay to feed to our Jersey cow Pam. If she won t eat it, we don t buy the hay!
DON’T BE AFRAID TO SHIP OVER DISTANCES
There can be quality advantages to buying hay from outside your area. For example, areas that are low in selenium have an even bigger problem when it is wet because forages that grow fast on wet land absorb even less than their already low amount of selenium.
In true farmer fashion we are hopeful that next year will be better. Since this isn t always the case, honing our ability to feed our livestock on a budget the farm can afford is vital. The tips outlined here will help to make purchasing hay as painless as possible and allow your farm to carry on another year.