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.
Hay also needs to be dried properly in the field; hay that’s been baled too soon, while still moist, may start to hot-compost when stacked in a barn. Once, early on, we bought alfalfa hay right out of the field that was far too green. We should have trusted our instincts when the small square bales were so heavy we could barely lift them into the truck bed, but deferred to the farmer we were buying from. Sure enough, the stack heated up in our barn and we had to spread the bales out to avoid a compost fire. Lesson learned.
If desired, you can have hay tested to learn more about its nutritional content; here in Missouri the service is offered by the university extension. Some growers test their own hay and have that information on hand for buyers, a good sign of a competent source.
Does the hay have unwanted chemicals in it?
Some hay may have chemicals applied in the field or to the bale. For example, long-lived herbicides are sometimes used to select for certain kinds of plants in the field, and these can remain on the hay and kill broad-leafed plants a year or more later, even through the composting process. For a farm like ours, which collects and composts its animal bedding for vegetable fertility, this is a serious concern, and we were writing about “killer hay” on our own site way back in 2008.
We’ve dealt with the problem by requiring anyone we buy hay from to sign a standard statement that no chemicals have been applied to the hay. When our farm was certified organic, this fit right into the required documentation of off-farm sourcing, but we also found it was a good way to initiate the conversation with a grower about how the hay was managed.
On a related note, those concerned about GMO crops should be wary of alfalfa, which was approved several years ago and spread rapidly into our region of Missouri. Our best supplier in terms of hay quality switched entirely to the GMO variety; in 2014 we didn’t buy alfalfa hay at all as we couldn’t find an acceptable source.
Does the hay contain unwanted seeds or poisonous plants?
Poisonous plants that sneak into a batch of hay can have serious implications for herd health. Plants that are toxic fresh can be a problem in hay, as well. Sweet clover is fine for fresh grazing, but can mold easily in hay and become toxic. Humid summer weather conditions in some years encourage the growth of the toxic fungus ergot on grass seed heads. If ergot is present when hay is made, it’ll be incorporated into the hay and lurk there as a threat.
Proactive avoidance is important, as it’s not always possible to establish a direct link between bad hay and goat health. We’ll always wonder if and to what extent a batch of questionable hay that we bought in the brutal winter following the brutal drought of 2012 played a role in a subsequent miscarriage and other poor herd health.
Even if hay is free of poisonous plants, it could introduce seeds of undesirable plants onto your farm. For example, we’ve been wary of introducing Johnson grass to our farm; this plant is common in our region, but we have so far avoided it. You can inspect hay bales before purchasing to look for signs of problematic plants, or even better can try to view the field before cutting.
We try to hot-compost all waste hay and animal bedding to minimize the risk of viable seeds getting through, but it’s best not to introduce them in the first place. Again, try to learn as much as you can about your hay’s source and handling. We’ve learned the hard way that not all hay growers are very biologically aware, and don’t always know what’s in their fields or why anyone would care.
When should you buy hay?
Ideally, you should buy hay freshly baled from the field in early summer. It’ll give you the best chance to inspect the hay and understand where it came from (for example, you can try to collect bales from area furthest from neighboring spray-happy commodity fields), and the price will be lower because the grower didn’t have to collect and store it. If you can’t transport your own hay, you’ll still likely get a better deal if you can arrange to have it delivered during baling season rather than stored in someone else’s barn.
Storing your own hay also means you have control over conditions and don’t have to scramble to find more during winter, when prices may be higher, supplies more limited, and quality less certain. If you can work ahead of time to identify a known source, all the better. We developed a relationship with a trusted grower who called us every year when baling season started, to arrange our usual pickup of hay on baling day.
How much hay do you need?
There is no straightforward answer to this; it depends on your breed(s), climate, pasture quality, etc. Here in Missouri, our highly variable winters range from warm, open southern conditions great for year-round grazing to bitter, icy, plains winters where the goats spend months in the barn reliant on hay.
We also tried to keep some ungrazed pasture stockpile for winter, so the goats would have a fresh place to browse when the weather cooperated. If you’re new at this, judging hay quantity is something you’ll just need to learn over time as you adjust to your own goats’ needs and behaviors. It’s better to err toward too much than too little. For whatever it’s worth, 40 small square bales each of grass and alfalfa hay was an ample annual supply for our 4 adult does.
Overall, we try to source our goats’ food the way we source our own. We raise as much of it ourselves as possible (through good pasture management), and work to buy the rest from a known, reliable source we trust. Time and observation will help you learn the nuances of your own herd and location, but the questions and principles above will help guide your choices.
Photo Credit Joanna Reuter
Eric and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem. He managed a home dairy goat herd from 2008 to 2014, and currently works part-time for a nearby artisanal goat dairy. Read all of Eric's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Best Blogging Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.