For many livestock producers, the haying season has arrived. It is now a race against time to reach hay production goals and capture some level of forage quality in the process. The quantity of production can be easily assessed (number of bales multiplied by average weight of the bales). The question to be answered then is the 'quality of production'. If quality of production is assessed on the baled forage, one can develop optimum feeding strategies for the livestock during the winter feeding period. Forage sampling and analysis (forage testing) is a simple means to answer the 'quality of production' question.
There are several methods for sampling baled hay. The best technique is to use a mechanical coring probe made specifically for this purpose. The coring probe consists of a metal tube with a serrated end. The probe is about 18 inches long and 1 inch in diameter, and is attached to a mechanical drilling brace or cordless drill with a special adapter. Cores are taken by placing the serrated edge on the side of a hay bale that is most resistant to puncture.
This is usually the round side of a round hay bale or the small end of a square bale. By turning the probe and applying pressure, the layers of the hay bale are cut and fill the tube portion of the probe. The sample is then deposited into a small paper sack or other suitable container. The process is repeated on additional hay bales until an adequate amount of forage material (6 or more cores per sample) is collected for nutrient analysis. A hay coring probe and drilling brace can be purchased from a farm supply catalogue for approximately $150, which is relatively inexpensive for anyone serious about producing hay.
The more traditional method of obtaining forage samples is the hand-grab technique. This method is generally not as accurate as coring and requires a larger sample container. On the other hand, the hand-grab method is faster and does not require special equipment. To sample properly, one must use a consistent technique and select from the middle two-thirds of a round hay bale or the middle third of a square bale. Sample by extending an open hand at least 6 inches into the open side of a hay bale, grabbing a handful of hay, pulling it out of the bale, and placing all of the sample into a container. Do not discard any portion of the sample such as undesirable weeds or grass stems. The process is repeated on several hay bales within the sampling lot.
The hand-grab method can also be used before baling. This simplifies the procedure, but increases the potential for selective or biased sampling. For best results, non-selectively grab a handful of hay from the middle of the windrow immediately in front of the baler. Make collections for each sample at regular intervals (i.e., every 30 minutes or every 10 bales), no more than 30 minutes before baling
Care should be taken when sampling hay. Samples should be uniformly obtained from several bales (6 bales minimum) throughout each sampling lot. Each sampling lot should be identified by date baled, cutting, forage type, pasture, and owner. One should also indicate if any significant event had occurred to the baled forage. For example, rain on hay during the curing process could cause changes in forage quality and would be reason to place these samples into a separate lot. For a large sampling lot (more than 50 bales), it is advisable to gather several hay samples for analysis.
After collection, the hay samples should be sent or delivered to an analytical laboratory for analysis. The standard laboratory analyses include percent dry matter (DM), percent crude protein (CP), and percent acid detergent fiber (ADF). The percent total digestible nutrients (TDN) is then calculated from percent ADF. The percent DM, CP, and TDN is the basic information needed to determine the forage quality or the feed value of the baled hay. It is this information that is used by NF specialists and extension professionals to make feeding recommendations and to develop winter feeding strategies.
The bottom line is that, by forage testing, unnecessary feed costs can be eliminated. This past year, several NF cooperators that sampled and analyzed their hay crops discovered the value of this process as a management tool. Several producers did not feed a supplement. Others fed only after the start of the calving season in the spring. In both scenarios, these producers observed tremendous reductions in supplement costs. This management tool (forage testing) is available to all hay and livestock producers, but like all tools, it only works when used and used properly.