During the cold winter months when pastures contain scant forage, hay is the typical diet for cattle, sheep, horses, and goats. After pasture, good quality hay is the ideal feed. However, there are significant differences in the variety, quality, and availability of hay, which can make feeding your livestock a time-consuming chore. But with some planning, feeding hay during the winter months can be a simple and efficient alternative while waiting for the return of spring’s lush pastures.
Hay falls into several categories: grass, legume, mixed (grass and legume), and cereal grain straw (such as oat hay). Some of the more common grass hays include timothy, brome, orchard grass, and bluegrass. In some parts of the country, fescue, reed canary grass, ryegrass and Sudan grass are common. In northern parts of the United States, timothy is widely grown because it tolerates cold weather and grows early in spring. However, it does not do well in hot climates. In central and southern parts of the country, you are more apt to find coastal Bermuda grass, brome, or orchard grass because these tolerate heat and humidity better.
Cereal grain crops, especially oats, can make good hay when cut while still green and growing, rather than waiting for the seed heads to mature for grain. There is always some risk of nitrate poisoning, however, if cereal grain hays are harvested after a spurt of growth following a drought period. If you are considering purchasing this type of hay, it can be tested for nitrate content.
Legumes used for hay include alfalfa, various types of clover, trefoil, vetch, soybean, lespedeza, birdsfoot, and cowpeas. Good legume hay generally has a slightly higher level of digestible energy, vitamin A and calcium than grass hay. Alfalfa may have twice the protein and three times the level of calcium than grass hay. Thus alfalfa is often fed to animals that need more protein and minerals.
Nutritional Composition of Hay
The nutritional value of hay is related to leaf content. The leaves of grass hay have more nutrients and are more digestible when the plant is immature and growing, and more fiber when the plant has reached full growth. Legume leaves, by contrast, do not have the same structural function and don’t change much as the plant grows, but the stems become coarser and more fibrous.
Alfalfa stems, for instance, are woody, serving as structural support for the plant. Leaf-to-stem ratio is the most important criterion in judging nutrient quality in an alfalfa plant. The digestibility, palatability, and nutrient values are highest when the plant is young—with more leaves and fewer stems. About 2¼ of the energy and 3¼ of the protein and other nutrients are in the leaves of a forage plant (whether grass or legume). Coarse, thick-stemmed hay (overly mature) has more fiber and less nutrition than immature, leafy hay with finer stems.
In buying alfalfa hay, you may want to know if it is first, second or third cutting and at what stage of growth it was harvested. Though there are differences between cuttings, quality is, however, most important. First-cut alfalfa can be stemmy, but only if it is too mature when harvested. Meanwhile, weeds tend to appear in first-cut alfalfa hay. Second-cut alfalfa usually has a higher stem-to-leaf ratio but is lower in crude protein – about 16 percent on average. Third-cut alfalfa typically has a higher leaf-to-stem ratio because of slower growth during the cool part of the season. If buying grass hay, maturity at harvest will also make a difference in its nutrient quality.
Early bloom alfalfa (cut before the blossoms open) has about 18 percent crude protein, compared with 9.8 percent for early bloom timothy (before seed heads fill), 11.4 percent for early bloom orchard grass, and lower levels for most other grasses. Alfalfa cut at full bloom drops to 15.5 percent crude protein, compared to 6.9 percent for late bloom timothy and 7.6 percent for late bloom orchard grass. Thus legume hay, cut early, is more apt to meet the protein and mineral needs of a young growing, pregnant, or lactating cow than will many of the grass hays.
The Best Hay for Cattle: Timothy Hay
Many who raise dairy cattle find Timothy hay to be a key ingredient in an overall feed program. Timothy hay is noted for being high in fiber and energy content, while also being noted for being relatively low in protein content. It is a great ingredient for the overall health and conditioning of the dairy cow, and combining timothy with other higher protein ingredients can be a great way to balance the cow’s energy and protein needs.
Timothy hay is recommended by many experts due to its ease on various animal’s digestive systems as well as the promotion of bowel regularity. In addition, there have been scientific studies done that show that Timothy hay is an ideal feed for pregnant or lactating cows. Another advantage is that it is relatively low in moisture content, preventing mold and rot. Timothy hay can help prevent hypocalcemia, “milk fever”, which occurs right before or after calving and can impact up to 10% of the herd.
In essence, adding Timothy to a feed regiment helps reduce potassium concentrations, to help avoid hypocalcemia. For beef cattle, Timothy has been known to enhance beef flavor and is fed to world popular wagyu and Kobe cattle in Japan. Grass-fed cattle are held to high standards of feed and care, and the meat from these cattle is known to be tender, firm, with good marbling and a unique flavor.
Guide on Choosing Hay for Dairy Cattle
Cattle tolerate hay that is dustier than what horses can handle. This livestock is even able to eat slightly moldy hay without any problems. If you are feeding pregnant cows, you need to pay attention to mold that does develop, as some varieties cause abortion. Young calves, dairy cows, and mature beef cattle require different qualities of hay. Mature beef cattle are fine with plain types, while lactating cows need a higher level of protein.
Good palatable grass hay that is cut while it’s still green and growing is a solid option for lactating cows. If you are feeding the lactating cows dry, coarse product, add some legume hay to their diet. Also, dairy cows produce more milk than beef cows, which means that they need a superior variety with ample nutrients. They also need to eat as much as possible to produce adequate quantities of milk. Fine, palatable alfalfa hay is a superior choice over coarse or grassy types.
When you are facing high costs, consider feeding your beef cattle a mixture of straw and some variety of protein. Straw provides energy while a small quantity of alfalfa or a commercial supplement offers the required vitamins, minerals, and protein. When you are buying straw for feed, look for high quality, clean varieties. Many cattle prefer oat straw over barley straw and wheat straw. If you want to feed your cattle cereal grain hay, cut it while it’s still green and growing, just as you would with grass types. Also, you should have this choice assessed for nitrate levels to steer clear of nitrate poisoning. During the winter months, cattle thrive better when fed extra straw or grass hay as opposed to legume types. This accommodates for their larger rumen or fermentation vat.