Quality hay is an important part of the diet for horses and livestock so it only makes sense to choose a high quality hay to feed to your animals. There are two methods of hay evaluation: visual and chemical. Before we get too far into the molecular break down of your feed lets just start with visual analysis.
A visual evaluation can give you a rough estimate of the overall quality of the hay. There are several traits to consider when visually evaluating hay quality:
Just because a bale of hay has a pretty, green color does not mean that it is high quality hay. Color
should be considered in your selection process but should not be the main factor in choosing hay. A
green color usually means that the hay contains a high level of protein and vitamins but that same
bale of hay could also be high in nitrates and low in digestibility. Hay that is a beige color is usually
sun-bleached but could also be hay that was rained on prior to baling. Rain can leach nutrients from
hay and decrease its quality. Dark brown hay (tobacco colored) is usually a sign that the hay has
been heat damaged after being baled too moist or rained upon after baling. Hay quality is seriously
affected in hay that has been heat damaged and mold may be present.
Stage of Maturity at Harvest
As grass matures, the nutritional content of the grass begins to decrease. The stems become tougher
and more fibrous and protein and energy levels can decrease. The presence of seed-heads and course,
thick stems can indicate that the grass was cut for hay at a mature stage of growth and is therefore a
lower quality of hay. Because the leaves contain most of the energy and protein the plant has to
offer, hay that is leafy with very few seed-heads is usually of higher quality.
Choose hay that has soft and flexible stems. Tough, thick stems will not be as desirable to the animal
and can also be an indication that the grass was overly mature when baled for hay.
Presence of Foreign Material
It is important to make sure that the hay is free from insects or trash. Blister beetles can be toxic to
horses and certain types of weeds can be toxic to horses and livestock. It can be difficult to
distinguish a toxic weed from a non-toxic weed once the plant has dried down and been baled with
the hay. Also, weeds that were not completely dried prior to baling can cause moldy areas within
the bale. It is best to just avoid hay that has weeds or trash in the bales.
Checking for Mold
Hay should not smell “old” or musty. It should have a fresh, clean smell. Hay that smells bad was probably baled too wet or was stored improperly and has molded. Hay should also not be dusty. Dusty hay can cause breathing problems in some animals. In many cases, the dust is actually mold spores. To distinguish between dusty hay and moldy hay, shake out a flake of hay from the bale. If the dust appears as a grayish-white color, it’s mold. Also, if the flakes are hard or stick together in clumps, the bale has molded.