Pascual Hernandez
Pascual Hernandez

We don’t routinely feed a lot of hay in our area. Nonetheless, hay buyers should have some awareness of how to select quality hay. There are two methods of hay evaluation: visual and chemical. Today, we’ll discuss visual evaluation, as it can give you a rough estimate of the overall quality of the hay.

There are several qualities to consider when visually evaluating hay:

Color.

Color should be considered in your selection process but should not be the main factor in choosing hay. A green color usually indicates that the hay contains a high level of protein and vitamins. Hay that is a light 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 is usually a sign that the hay has been heat damaged after being baled too moist or rained upon after baling. Hay quality is greatly diminished in this case (and mold may be present).
Maturity at Harvest.

As grass matures, the nutritional content of the grass begins to decrease. The stems toughen and become more fibrous, while protein and energy levels can decrease. The presence of seedheads and course, thick stems signal that the grass was cut for hay at a mature stage of growth and is therefore lower quality. Because the leaves hold most of the energy and protein the plant has to offer, hay that is leafy with very few seedheads is usually of higher quality.

Texture.

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.

Make sure that 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. Pay particular attention to the presence of toxic weeds 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.

Check for Mold.

Hay should have a fresh, clean smell- not musty. 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 animals. In many cases, the “dust” is actually mold spores.
Shop local when possible.

It can be a good idea as you have first-hand access to the source and can evaluate quality both in the growth stage and once baled.
Hay can be a significant part of the diet for horses and livestock, so quality is important. Take the time to evaluate what you buy.