Choosing Hay for Your Dairy Goats

| 12/3/2015 11:14:00 AM


When we began raising dairy goats, we barely knew hay from straw. We grew up in gardening families, without livestock. So when it came time to start buying hay for our goats, we had to learn from experience. Here are some things we’ve learned to consider when sourcing hay for our herd.

What Is Hay?

As a working definition, hay is the cut & dried stem/leaf material of non-grain livestock-edible plants such as grasses and legumes. It’s the dried equivalent of what the animal would want to eat fresh. Straw, by contrast, tends to be the cut & dried stem material of harvested grains (such as oats or wheat) which aren’t particularly palatable. Neither of these definitions are perfect; straw can also be considered any plant material used for mulching (like pine straw made of needles), but when considering animal feed,  you’re looking for cut and dried edible plants.

We tend to divide our hay needs into two categories: grass hay, which provides the basic diet during the winter, and legume hay (like alfalfa), which provides extra protein and calcium. A good hayfield, like a good pasture, may have enough grasses and legumes mixed together to provide an ideal hay in one package, but we’ve tended to buy alfalfa hay separately to ensure our dairy animals get enough nutrition during the winter.

How Do You Judge “Good” Hay?

Despite their reputation, goats are actually finicky eaters, and this fact should guide you when choosing hay. Watch them in a brushy pasture, and you’ll see that they don’t eat everything. They use their flexible tongues to strip the leaves off desirable plants, or the freshest tips of grass blades, but generally leave the stems or stalks of plants alone. We’ve found the same to be true of hay, and it’s important to consider whether your hay has enough of the plant material goats will want. Ideally, you would try to identify a hay supplier ahead of time and look at the hayfield before it’s cut to determine what’s in it and how healthy the plants look.

Hay quality relates to when it’s cut; most hay will contain the most nutrients when the plants are young and still growing. Thus you want your hay to have lots of leafy material in it compared to the amount of mature seed stalks and stems; a really bristly, stemmy hay is probably not going to be as good as a younger, softer-feeling hay. This does depend on the type of hay; alfalfa leaves grow on a strong stem to begin with, so alfalfa hay will generally feel rougher than pure grass hay.

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