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Dry Weather Has Some Producers Asking About Buying Hay
Missouri Ag Connection - 07/09/2018

Livestock producers never like to think about having to feed hay in the summer according to Tim Schnakenberg, agronomy specialist, University of Missouri Extension.

"But if grass growth is not where it needs to be for the number of cattle on hand, buying hay may be a necessary practice," said Schnakenberg. "The other option is to sell down the cow herd, starting with the cows that are low performers or show evidence of a lack of endophyte tolerance."

Some livestock producers planted sudangrass, millet or crabgrass this summer, hedging their bets against a drought according to Schnakenberg.

"This may have paid off, though the dry weather can affect these forages as well. A better plan is to have a permanent stand of warm season grasses to fall back on such as bermudagrass or a native grass like big bluestem, switchgrass or Indiangrass," said Schnakenberg.

Here are some of the common questions Schankenberg is receiving this summer along with his answers for area producers.

Q: What should producers look for in purchased hay?

A hay test is the best way to evaluate hay quality. Many MU Extension Centers have hay probes that can be borrowed to pull a hay test. The number one way to determine good hay from bad is to have the hay tested for quality. From a physical evaluation, you should also look for leafiness, the presence of weeds and how many seed heads exist in the hay. Mature seed heads are a sign of an over-mature crop. Keep an eye on the presence of mold and the smell of the hay. Weeds are often transferred in a drought from one farm to the other so take a close look for the presence of thistle heads, poison hemlock seed or Johnsongrass heads that could be in the hay.

A representative sample of the hay, obtained by using a core sampler or probe, can be sent to a certified laboratory for testing. Samples should come from at least ten small square bales or five big round bales. The results will come back with information such as fiber content, protein, energy, nitrate levels, the relative feed value or relative forage quality. All of these values can be useful to determine whether the hay you are buying is best for your class of livestock.

Q: Should I have concerns about nitrates or fire ants in purchased hay?

The quick answer is yes. Any hay containing sudangrass, millet or Johnsongrass has the possibility of nitrate toxicity during harvest in dry conditions. Nitrate levels remain in the hay at the same levels they were at the day it was baled. If hay is made into haylage, the nitrate levels could potentially be halved. Quick tests can be done at some extension centers, but a more accurate way to insure animal safety is to test for nitrate levels in a laboratory hay test.

Hay that may be coming in from the south or west could potentially have fire ant infestations. Look for fire ant activity in the bales. Evidence near the hay storage areas of fresh upturned soil could be a sign of this issue. If this is observed weeks or months after you buy infested hay, contact your local extension center for information on how to eradicate fire ants.

Q: Where do I look for hay and should I purchase by the ton or per bale?

Finding hay to purchase can be hit and miss. Much of the process is "word of mouth," but there are newspaper ads, farm store bulletin board ads and Craigslist ads that are sometimes used. You can also access the Missouri hay market directory at Refer to the Missouri Department of Agriculture's weekly hay market summary to get a feel for the going price of hay. A link to the summary can be found at the same website.

Hay is purchased in many different ways. It is best to buy hay on a cost per ton basis if you are buying large quantities. However, hay is frequently sold by the bale. Just remember how variable the weight of a large round bale may be. A large round bale may vary in weight from 500 pounds to 1600 pounds. Factor in weight and quality in the price of the bale. Some sources may sell round bale silage bales. There usually is potential for somewhat higher quality in these bales, but that is not guaranteed. You will also have to factor in the additional weight of higher moisture bales when pricing and transporting them.

Be prepared to pay a premium for good quality hay. In some cases, it may pay to buy some higher value legume hay to be a protein and energy supplement to go along with lower value hay you may already have on hand.

For more information, contact any of these MU Extension agronomy specialists in southwest Missouri: Tim Schnakenberg in Stone County, (417) 357-6812; Jill Scheidt in Barton County, (417) 682-3579 and Sarah Kenyon in Howell County, (417) 256-2391.

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