I hate shopping. My wife buys all my clothes for me, which suits me just fine. When I do shop, I try to find the best deal for my money. This same concept applies to shopping for hay. Most of the time, I have a good idea of what my money is purchasing. Labels list features, ingredients, warranties, weight or other information that I can use to make my money go further.
When shopping for hay, a list of its features such as crude protein or pounds in a bale may or may not be available, making valuation of hay difficult, if not impossible. This can be easily remedied by asking for a hay analysis and a bale weight, or testing and weighing it yourself prior to purchase. Make sure when sampling hay that you obtain a test for each hay type (bermudagrass, sorghum sudan, wheat, etc.) and for each cutting. Ideally, the same thing would go for bale weight.
After obtaining the forage analysis, compare hay based on dry matter and not as-fed. Pay attention to moisture; the ideal moisture content at baling should be 17-18 percent. If moisture content is higher than this at the time of testing, it could signal problems.
There are some complex methods for placing a value on hay based on crude protein (CP) and total digestible nutrients (TDN), and then adjusting price compared to a known supplement value like soybean meal or corn. So how could a producer get a quick and dirty field estimation of hay value without dragging along a laptop to run all the calculations?
Always start by establishing a price based on per pound or per ton basis rather than per bale. Next, look at the hay quality analysis. Table 1 shows an example using nutrient content of grass hays based on the USDA grass hay quality guidelines. Prices assigned to quality are from the Oklahoma Hay Market Report for the week of June 25. So even though I may be giving up a little in protein, are the cheaper hays (B-C) still a good value for my money compared to A? A really simple way to figure this is to establish the crude protein unit cost of A which is $4.33 (65/15 = $4.33). Next, determine the value of the other hays in comparison to A based on per unit of crude protein content.
Table 1. Compared to A, the value of hays B-D is considerably lower and would not be considered a bargain even though they are priced less. Let's look at this another way: if we compared only hays A and B, and held the cost of B constant at $55/T, how high would A have to increase in price before the two values equal? Since B is being used as the comparison, establish the per unit value of its crude protein (55/11 = $5) and then compare to A (15 X 5 = $75). The price of A would have to increase $10/T to $75/T before the value of A=B on a per unit crude protein basis.
Note that this method is only comparing one nutrient and ignores other nutritional differences that may exist. However, as a general rule, with higher crude protein values, we also see higher TDN and lower fiber levels.
You also need to consider the class of livestock you are shopping for. For example, a dry pregnant cow in mid-gestation only needs 8-9 percent CP hay. So, while hay A is a better value based on crude protein, this type of cow does not need the high quality and it is still $20/T higher. On the other hand, this method can help when targeting hay for animals with high nutritional demands. This method also is not establishing a price; it is establishing a value, which can make comparison shopping a lot easier when price and quality are known.
Table 2 shows another tool - the USDA hay quality guidelines and the class of livestock for which they will work - that can also help in your shopping.