Extension Conference Puts Focus on Quality Hay

12/22/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — Nutrient content is a key factor when feeding animals hay, no matter how big or small the animals, from zoo elephants to barnyard dairy goats.

More than 40 people turned out Dec. 6 for a hay quality workshop hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer and Saratoga counties in Ballston Spa, N.Y.

Janet Fallon, of Dairy One Forage Laboratories, in Ithaca, taught participants how to identify legumes and grasses, and things that separate good cuttings from bad. Fallon judges hay contests at the New York State Fair each year.

“Quality is of interest to anybody who is feeding livestock,” she said. “How do you define quality? It’s not one size fits all.”

For example, grass timothy especially is the preferred hay for horses, versus a legume such as alfalfa. However, the desired nutrient content differs greatly depending on the size and type of equine involved. Feed requirements are much different for a nursing mare, foal, active racehorse, working draft horse or miniature pet pony.

“Dry cows need a very different nutritional quality hay than lactating cows,” Fallon said. “There are a lot of things like that to keep in mind.”

Saratoga County, where the workshop was held, is prime horse country and about two-third’s of class participants said they own some type of horse.

Bill Barner, of Milton, has owned horses for the past 20 years on his “hobby farm.” He took part to get updated about the latest information, to make sure his animals stay healthy.

“We just wanted to hone up a little, and see if we know what we think we know,” he said.

Veterinarian Dr. Harvey Stein owns Northway Farm and Stein Racing Stable, a standardbred operation with 30 horses, in Moreau.

“It’s really important when harvesting hay to understand the balance between quality and yield,” he said.

That’s one of the things Fallon emphasized, with well-defined charts and graphs.

The longer hay grows in the field, the greater the yield will be. After a certain point, however, nutrient content goes down. So growers have to know when to harvest, in order to maximize each cutting.

For dairy cows, hay should be cut from the late-bud to early-bloom stage. For horses, it can be a bit longer, she said.

Of course, weather quite often affects timing.

“Harvesting at the correct moisture is a very important thing,” Fallon said.

She showed a picture of one rounded bale that caught fire in the field because the hay was too wet, and began to mold, leading to spontaneous combustion. “It’s a good thing it wasn’t inside the barn or the whole barn could have been lost,” she said.

Fallon also discussed soil fertility, keeping pH at certain levels, to prevent the growth of undesirable species such as alsike clover that can make horses sick, or even prove fatal.

Color, molding/odor, leafiness, maturity, foreign objects inside bales and chemical features are the things judges look for most.

A nice, bright green color is usually preferable. But quite often, quality involves more than meets the eye and a closer look is needed. For example, hay that’s sun-bleached, perhaps a little yellow, might be better in some cases.

It’s important to look for leafiness, too, because 60 percent of hay’s total digestible nutrients are found in leaves.

“I love knowing the science behind it,” said homesteader Kathleen Queen, of Saratoga, who raises goats for dairy purposes. “This class has helped me learn how to assess product before I fill my barn with it. I feel like I need a lot more information to find out how to maximize the animals’ productivity and their own health. This is huge.”

Class participants were even given a chance to test what they learned by inspecting and judging a variety of hay samples on their own. Contests are useful because they help growers learn from their shortcomings.

“It’s an education process,” Fallon said. “When they get the report back, maybe they’ll make some changes and come back the next year.”

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