Testing quality of hay is important for both farmers and buyers
By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
It's a good idea to test alfalfa for forage quality and do it near the time of sale, said Glenn Shewmaker, extension forage specialist and associate extension professor at the University of Idaho-Twin Falls Research and Education Center.
Assessing forage quality is especially valuable in the dairy market, where high-quality hay is essential for milk production. Hay farmers also need to know if their hay is high quality so they can get a premium price and market it effectively.
"The best way to assess nutritive value is to get a forage test, and the best way to get a representative sample is with a core test," he said.
Hay bale probes, which have been around for decades, are still the best bet for getting an accurate, representative sample of the whole lot, he said.
"Forage-quality labs and universities have developed forage-quality tests that try to approximate the value to the ruminant animal," he said.
Because forage is dynamic and quality deteriorates with time, moisture and temperature, it is important to test it as close to the time of sale as possible.
"Forage quality will deteriorate, even if it's stored under the best conditions," he said.
Most hay growers only do one forage test to determine their market, and that's probably OK as long as they realize their forage quality is on a downward slope. Most dairymen will have their own sample tested, running it through their usual lab where they're familiar with how the analysis reads and the hay feeds, he said.
Even the best testing can be problematic -- it's only going to test a few grams in what could be a 200-ton lot.
"From a mass basis, you see the challenge we're up against," Shewmaker said.
Hay growers should learn the ins and outs of proper sampling to get an accurate, representative sample.
Information on how to sample and what to look for in a hay probe can be found at www.foragetesting.org, the website of the National Forage Testing Association.
In addition to proper sampling, it is equally important to have the sample tested by a certified forage-testing lab.
"A certified lab will do as good as can be expected of determining nutritive value," he said.
Nonetheless, many hay growers will attempt to "test" labs, but they're not sending a comparative sample and should expect to get varying results.
"The biggest cause in variation in determining forage quality is the sampling method. The biggest source of error is the sampler," he said.