Selecting Hay for Cattle

Selecting Hay for Cattle

Reading Time: 7 minutes

By Heather Smith Thomas

During winter, drought or any other times that animals do not have adequate pasture, hay is the mainstay of diet for cattle. Next to pasture, good quality hay is the most ideal feed.

Types of Hay

Hay falls into several categories: grass, legume, mixed (containing grass and a legume) and cereal grain straw (such as oat hay). Some of the more common grass hays include timothy, brome, orchard grass and bluegrass. In some parts of the country fescue, reed canary grass, ryegrass and Sudan grass are common. In northern parts of the U.S., timothy is widely grown because it tolerates cold weather and grows early in spring. It does not do well in hot climates, however. In central and southern parts of the country you are more apt to find Coastal Bermuda grass, brome or orchard grass because these tolerate heat and humidity better.

Some hayfields consist of “wild hay” or “meadow hay” as compared to “tame” hay grasses that have been planted. Many of the native or volunteer plants that grow in uncultivated hayfields are good, nutritious grasses that make acceptable hay for beef cattle. As long as the plant mix is predominantly grasses of palatable types (rather than weeds or swamp grasses), meadow hay is quite adequate for winter feed—especially for mature cows that don’t need high levels of protein. Some of these native grasses, when cut before seed heads mature, are very palatable and high enough in protein content for calves and lactating cows, without having to add a supplemental protein source.

Cereal grain crops (especially oats) are sometimes cut while still green and growing, rather than waiting for the seed heads to mature for grain. If harvested properly, this makes good hay, especially when it is grown with peas (a legume). There is always some risk of nitrate poisoning, however, if cereal grain hays are harvested after a spurt of growth following a drought period. The hay can be tested for nitrate content if you are considering using this type of hay.

Legumes used for hay include alfalfa, various types of clover (such as red, crimson, alsike and ladino), lespedeza, birds-foot trefoil, vetch, soybean and cowpeas. Good legume hay generally has a higher level of digestible energy, vitamin A, and calcium than grass hay. Alfalfa may have twice the protein and three times the level of calcium than grass hay. Thus alfalfa is often fed to animals that need more protein and minerals.

Early bloom alfalfa (cut before the blossoms open) has about 18 percent crude protein, compared with 9.8 percent for early bloom timothy (before seed heads fill), 11.4 percent for early bloom orchard grass, and lower levels for most other grasses. Alfalfa cut at full bloom drops to 15.5 percent crude protein, compared to 6.9 percent for late bloom timothy and 7.6 percent for late bloom orchard grass. Thus legume hay, cut early, is more apt to meet the protein and mineral needs of young growing animals, pregnant and lactating animals than will many of the grass hays.

Nutritional value of hay is related to leaf content. Leaves of grass hay have more nutrients and are more digestible when the plant is immature and growing, and more fiber when the plant has reached full growth. Legume leaves, by contrast, do not have the same structural function and don’t change that much as the plant grows. But the stems become coarser and more fibrous. Alfalfa stems, for example, are woody, serving as structural support for the plant. Leaf to stem ratio is the most important criteria in judging nutrient quality in an alfalfa plant. The digestibility, palatability and nutrient value is highest  when the plant is young—with more leaves and less stems. About 2/3 of the energy and 3/4 of the protein and other nutrients are in the leaves of a forage plant (whether grass or legume). Coarse, thick-stemmed hay (overly mature) has more fiber and less nutrition than immature, leafy hay with finer stems.

If buying alfalfa hay, you’ll want to know if it is first, second or third cutting (or later), and at what stage of growth it was harvested. If buying grass hay, maturity at harvest will also make a difference in its nutrient quality. Your choice will depend on the type of animals you are feeding, and their specific needs.

Hay for Cattle

Cattle can generally tolerate dustier hay than can horses, and can often eat a little mold without problems. Keep in mind, however, that some types of mold may cause abortion in pregnant cows. The quality of the hay needed will also depend on whether you are feeding mature beef cattle, young calves, or dairy cattle. Mature beef cattle can get by on rather plain hay—of any type—but if lactating they will need adequate  protein. Good palatable grass hay, cut while still green and growing, can be very adequate, but if grass hay is coarse and dry (with little vitamin A or protein), you’ll need to add some legume hay to their diet.

Young calves have small, tender mouths and cannot chew coarse hay very well—whether grass or alfalfa. They do best with fine, soft hay that’s cut before bloom stage; it not only contains more nutrients, but is also much easier to eat.

Dairy cattle need the best hay— with the most nutrients per pound— since they are producing more milk than a beef cow. Most dairy cattle will not milk adequately on grass hay, nor on stemmy, coarse alfalfa without many leaves. A dairy cow needs to be able to eat as much as possible, and she will eat more fine, palatable alfalfa hay than coarse hay, and get a lot more nutrition from it.

If hay is expensive, beef cattle can often get by eating a mix of straw and some type of protein. Straw (aftermath from harvest of oats, barley or wheat) provides energy — created by fermentation breakdown in the rumen. A small amount of alfalfa or a commercial protein supplement can provide the needed protein, minerals and vitamins. If buying straw to feed, select good quality, clean straw. Oat straw is the most palatable; cattle like it quite well. Barley straw is not as well liked, and wheat straw is least desirable as feed. If feeding cereal grain hay (cut while still green and growing, rather than at maturity, as straw), be careful with this type of hay, and have it checked for nitrate levels, to avoid nitrate poisoning.

In cold weather, cattle do better if fed extra roughage (grass hay or straw), since they have a large “fermentation vat” (rumen). During the breakdown of fiber in the rumen, heat and energy are created. During cold weather you need to feed your cattle more roughage, rather than more legume hay.

Hay Bales


As a general rule, good quality legume hay costs more than grass hay (due to higher protein content), unless you live in a region where legume hay is the primary crop. Relative cost for hay will vary around the country, with cost reflecting supply and demand — along with freight costs to haul it. In drought years when hay is scarce, it will cost a lot more than on years when there is plentiful supply. If hay must be hauled very far, the price of fuel (in freight costs added to the base price) will make the total very expensive.

Tips on Selecting Hay

Hay quality can vary greatly, depending on growing conditions (wet or dry weather, hot or cool). Hay that grows slowly in cool weather is often more fine and palatable, with more nutrients per pound, than hay growing rapidly in hot weather. Hay that grows fast doesn’t have as much time to absorb minerals from the soil, for instance, and some types of plants mature too quickly; they may be too coarse and stemmy (and past bloom stage, with less nutrient quality than green, growing plants) by the time the hay is harvested. Other factors that affect nutritional value include plant species, fertility of soil, harvesting methods (whether the hay was crimped and conditioned to dry faster, losing less leaves and nutrients during drying) and curing time.

One way to assess maturity of alfalfa hay is the snap test. If a handful of hay bends easily in your hand, the fiber content is relatively low. The hay will be more nutrient dense and digestible (with less woody lignin), than if the stems snap like twigs.

Hay samples can be tested; core samples from several bales can be sent to a hay testing lab for analysis. This is always wise when trying to evaluate hay for protein or mineral content. You should also open a few bales and look at the hay inside, to check texture, maturity, color and leafiness. Check for weeds, mold, dust, discoloration due to weathering (to know if the cut hay was rained on before being baled and stacked). Check for heat (and smell the hay) to know if it’s fermented.

Also check for foreign material in the bales, such as rocks, sticks, baling twines or wire. The latter can cause hardware disease in cattle if ingested wire pokes through the gut and creates peritonitis. Cattle often eat hurriedly and don’t sort out small foreign objects. Baling twines in hay can also be hazardous if eaten. Calves often chew on and eat twines, which can create fatal blockage in the gut.

Rained-on hay that had to be redried will be dull in color—yellow or brown, rather than bright green. All hay will weather; the sun bleaches the outside of the bales. You often can’t tell the quality of hay by looking at the outside. The inside should still be green, however, even if the outer edges have faded due to exposure to rain and sun.

Odor also gives a good clue to quality. Hay should smell good, not musty, sour or moldy. Flakes should separate easily and not be stuck together. Moldy hay, or hay that heated too much after being baled will usually be heavy, stuck together,  and dusty. Alfalfa hay that has heated excessively may be brown and “caramelized,” smelling sweet or a little bit like molasses. Cattle like it, but some of the nutrients have been cooked; much of the protein and vitamin A have been destroyed. Good hay will be uniformly green and smell good, with no brown spots or moldy portions.

Try to select hay that has been protected from weather by a tarp or hay shed, unless you are buying it directly out of the field after baling. Rain on a stack can ruin the top layer or two, soaking in and causing mold. The bottom layer of bales may also be moldy if the stack sat on ground that draws moisture. Top and bottom bales will weigh more (adding cost) and have spoilage.

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