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Selecting Hay for Livestock

Hay bales in the fieldFor many farmers, hay is important. Whether it is provided as the main feed source or used as a feed additive, selecting and feeding the proper hay is mandatory.  There are many ways to determine what hay is best suited for your livestock, and based on species, age and working requirement the ideal type of hay varies. In this blog, we will discuss the major factors you should take into consideration when choosing hay for your livestock.

Varieties of Hay

While there are many varieties of hay, such as timothy, brome, alfalfa and clover just to name a few, all hay can be placed in one of two major categories, grasses and legumes. There are many differences in the nutritional make up of each type of hay, but to determine a general starting point, there are a few differences in the nutrition of grass hay and legumes that should be considered.

Grass Hay

Grass hay close upGrass hay tends to have a medium to low protein content, while containing a high amount of fiber. Grass hay is best cut when it is immature and growing because its leaves contain the most nutritional value at that time. Allowing the grass to reach full maturity before cutting increases the plants fiber content, but reduces the nutritional value stored in its’ leaves. While grass hay cut at either time is beneficial, the type of livestock and their purpose will ultimately determine whether mature or immature cut hay will fit their nutritional needs.


Alfalfa hay after 3rd cutOverall, legume hay is richer in nutrients and provides more energy than grass hay. However, legume leaves are less essential to the plant and therefore have very little variation as the plant matures. Legume hay also tends to have a greater amount of stalk as compared to leaves, and that ratio increases even more after the second and third cuttings, meaning that the first cut of legume hay contains the greatest amount of nutrients.

With differing benefits between grass and legume hay, it would be ideal to feed a mix of grass and legume, rather than feeding just one or the other. If you are able to mix the two, it increases the total coverage of nutrition and reduces the need to feed additional supplements in order to meet nutritional goals.

Choosing Good Hay 

Selecting hayMaking the selection of grass, legume or a mix is just the start of the hay selecting process. Whether you are buying a dozen bales total, or purchasing for the upcoming year, you will at some point need to select the physical bales of hay that you are going to purchase. Many factors should be considered when selecting bales of hay, but in general farmers look to see if the hay is green in color, contains fine stems and lots of leaves and contains no blister beetles, mold or weeds. As a rule of thumb, looking for these factors will ensure a quality bale of hay, but no hay can be accurately judged with a visual check. If you are looking for the most accurate nutritional value of your hay, a nutritional analysis is highly recommended.

Using a nutritional analysis is extremely accurate and will provide the nutritional break down of your hay. The nutritional analysis shows the strong points and weak points in the nutrition of your hay, and allows you to determine what vitamins or minerals are missing from your livestock’s diet. To conduct a nutritional analysis, you will need to obtain a core sample from your hay bale. You do this by using a core sampler, or if you do not have access to one, you can pull some hay from the middle of your bale with your hands. The sample should always be from the middle of the bale because that section contains the best quality hay, unaffected by weather, sun and any other natural factor. After getting a sample, you send your sample to a forage testing lab where it is analyzed and a full nutritional break down is mailed to you within a few weeks.

Chemical Analysis ResultsHay analysis

Choosing for Your Livestock

All livestock have different nutritional needs, and various types of hay are more beneficial for certain animals. Aside from greater nutritional benefits, some hays can actually be deadly to certain animals because their bodies digest the feed differently. Knowing what type of hay is best suited for your livestock is important, and here are some basic requirements for various breeds that you can follow in order to help you get started.


Horses eating hayHorses are the most sensitive to bad hay. For horses, you need the cleanest, freshest hay possible and it can be either legume or grass. Grass hay is the best for horses, as its nutrient balance is not too great and it can be easily digested. If you are looking to add legume hay, alfalfa is the most recommended for horses, but you should use caution as alfalfa on its own is too rich for most horses.


Beef cattle are able to survive on lower quality hay, Beef cows in haybut it is not recommended to intentionally purchase the cheapest hay bales possible for their feed. Dairy cows are very different however because much like horses, dairy cows need the cleanest, most nutrient rich hay possible in order to match their elevated production levels. For beef and dairy cattle, grass hay is recommended unless the cow is pregnant or nursing. Pregnant and nursing cattle require higher protein levels in their diet, so including legume hay with Goats and haythe staple grass hay is recommended for a pregnant or nursing cow.


Goats prefer the thin profile of legume hay as opposed to the thick, coarse cut of grass hay. With smaller mouths than most other livestock, a fine cut legume hay that is high in nutrients is both preferred by and best suited for goats and kids.

Sheep and haySheep

Much like goats, sheep prefer fine, leafy hay. Immature grass hay or legume hay is recommended for mature sheep, but lambs see the most benefits from legume hay. One feeding factor with sheep is that they tend to waste feed if it is on wet, muddy ground. However, when fed in a clean, dry area, such as a feed bunk or dry cement floor, sheep will eat most of the hay and waste the least amount of feed.


Storing your hay, no matter how much or how little, is vital to its health and nutritional value. Be sure that if you are buying hay in any sort of quantity that you have a dry, covered area to store it in. Leaving hay uncovered and outdoors creates waste on the top layer of hay, as well as the bottom. When exposed to the sun and rain, the top layer of hay will lose nutritional value very quickly.65'W turnkey building If the bottom is also left unprotected, moisture will soak into the bottom layer, ruining that as well. When storing your hay, it is recommended that you keep it in a covered shelter that has permanent flooring. At FarmTek, we offer hundreds of structures that are perfect for hay storage. For example, our ClearSpanTM 65’W Turnkey buildings are ideal for those looking to install a hay storage building in a hurry. If you are unable to store your hay in a building however, you can cover it with a tarp and stack your bales on a bed of gravel. This will prevent rain and sun from damaging the top layer and will help prevent moisture build up on the bottom layer. We recommend using one of our PolyMax Hay Tarps to cover your hay, as they provide ideal coverage from rain and sun damage and are available in a variety of sizes and thicknesses.

Hay selection is a much more involved and important process than many think. Without the proper research, your livestock may not be reaching their full potential due to the lack of nutrition in their diet. So next time you are purchasing hay, be sure to consider the nutritional benefits your livestock need and select accordingly.

Hay bales stacked


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