We were all hoping that this year’s hay crop would be bountiful and beautiful after last year’s scarce supply. Thanks to recent flooding in parts of Canada and the US, including Southern Ontario, Alberta and the Eastern seaboard, the hay crisis is not over. However, the crisis has changed.
Last year’s early frost destroyed many alfalfa crops leading to low availability of stored hay during the winter and early spring. As a result, people were eager to send their animals out to pasture and we were warning against introducing nutrient rich spring grasses into the diet too quickly. Now, the transition from hay to pasture is complete for most and animal care providers are breathing a sigh of relief that their dependency on hay is lessened. Grazing animals can be somewhat selective on pasture provided they have the individual space to graze and are shifted between pastures, giving grasses time to recover. Meanwhile, crop farmers in Southern Ontario are busy following the advice of the old proverb to make hay while the sun shines. Unfortunately, before the sun was shining we were experiencing rain, and a lot of it.
The most significant influence on forage quality is the stage of maturity when it is cut. Last year, supply was limited but the quality of what was available was somewhat consistent so the recommendation was, “if it’s green and clean, then feed it.” The frost killed off a large amount of the year’s early crops but the remainder of the growing season allowed for new crops to be harvested at ideal maturity, when plants were young and leafy. The result was a lower overall yield of good quality hay.
This year we didn’t experience frost damage but first cut was delayed due to rain. When cutting is delayed, plants continue to grow past that optimum maturity level. The longer they mature, the lower their nutrient quality. They become more woody or stemmy. Nitrogen level drops as they shed their protein-rich seeds and mobile nitrogen moves back into the base of the plant below the cut level. If farmers were able to cut hay before the rains came but didn’t have time to dry and bale it, forage quality was also affected by rain damage during drying. This hay can become dusty or moldy as it dries and could lead to respiratory issues when feeding. All of these factors means that this year we are going to have a much greater variability in hay quality.
Hay analysis is going to be critical to provide adequate nutrition this year. Visual inspection of hay is not enough to determine its nutrient content. You may be able to detect moldy or dusty hay that didn’t dry properly but two bales of hay that look good may vary dramatically in nutrient levels. Without regular analysis you will not be able to tell if the hay you are feeding contains 8% or 18% protein. That is a significant difference in a diet component that could make up more than 70% of an animal’s diet. That does not mean that a forage with 8% crude protein should not be fed. In fact, in some instances when an animal has lower nutrient requirements, this feed may be ideal and the 18% crude protein hay would be considered too high. In the cases when you have an animal with higher energetic demands, such as young, growing animals, animals with higher levels of physical activity or during late gestation and lactation, you may need to increase the concentrate in the diet to compensate for a lower protein forage.
Hay suppliers are well aware of these necessary adjustments to your feeding program and in most cases are getting their hay analysed to provide you with all the information you need to properly feed your collection. So, take advantage of this service and ask your hay provider for their test results before feeding. If you are cutting your own hay to feed your collection then finding a lab is easy. Your local feed and farm supply distributor can help you locate one in your area. Plan ahead and remember to hold off on feeding that hay before you receive your results. Testing won’t do you any good if you’ve already fed out the forage! Improve your peace of mind by taking control of your feeding program.