High-Quality Hay Production

Since hay is such a widely used stored feed, it is important to understand the factors that influence hay quality and the criteria used to evaluate hay quality. This information can then be used to develop a feeding program that will be the most effective and efficient in meeting each producer's goals.

Why is hay quality important:

When pasture growth is limited, some type of stored feed must be provided to grazing animals.  Hay is one of the most versatile stored feeds available because:

1. Accumulated forage from periods of excess growth can be cut for hay, which minimizes waste.
2. It can be stored for long periods of time with little loss in nutritional value if protected from weather.
3. It can be produced and fed in large or small amounts.
4. It can be produced and fed either mechanically or manually.
5. It can supply the nutrient requirements of most classes of livestock.
6. A large number of crops can be used to produce hay.


Hay quality is usually measured by the amount and availability of nutrients contained in the hay.  The estimation of protein, fiber, and digestibility of a hay can all be used to determine quality.  The ultimate test of hay quality, however, is animal performance.  Quality can be considered satisfactory when animals consuming the hay perform as desired.  Three factors which influence animal performance are:

1. Intake- hay must be palatable if it is to be consumed in adequate quantities to produce the desired performance.
2. Digestibility and nutrient content- once the hay has been eaten, it must be digested and converted to animal products.
3. Toxic factors- the hay must be free of components which are harmful to the animals.

What are factors affecting hay quality

There are many factors that will influence hay quality, some of which can be manipulated by the producer.  These are:

A.  Plant species
B.  Stage of maturity
C.  Curing and handling conditions
D.  Soil fertility
E.  Seed quality
*originally developed by Joe D. Burns, Professor Emeritus, Plant and Soil Science

How to evaluate hay quality


Chemical evaluation - The most reliable way to determine hay quality is through chemical analysis.  The Forage Testing Lab in Nashville, part of the Agricultural Extension Service of the University of Tennessee, can analyze a sample of hay for crude protein, fiber, and total digestible nutrients.  These results can be used to assess quality and to determine type and amount of supplementation needed for the desired level of animal production.  Accuracy depends on obtaining a representative sample, which usually requires the use of a core sampler.  Determining hay quality and matching the quality to different classes of livestock based on nutrient requirements can lead to a more efficient forage-livestock program.  Contact your local Extension office for more information concerning forage testing.

Visual evaluation - Although not as reliable as forage testing, a visual estimate can be helpful in determining forage quality.  A guide for visual evaluation is given in Table 6.  Learning what to look for in high quality hay will help in determining when to cut hay, and will give a guide for the relative ranking of hays.  High quality hay is early cut, green, soft, leafy, free of foreign material and has a pleasant odor.

Producing high quality hay should be a goal of each cattle producer.  Feeding high quality hay during periods of reduced pasture growth can result in better weight gain in calves, and better milk production and rebreeding in cows.  Feeding high quality hay can also reduce the level of grain supplementation needed during winter.  Cutting hay early, proper fertilization, and cutting when the hay will not get wet will allow cattle producers to get higher quality hay and more efficient use of pastures.