Hay and Other Forage. Know the types of forage, feeding and storage.
Legumes and Grasses
Do you know the different types of hay and other forage? Which one is the best choice for your animals and why? The following information is meant to help the backyard or small homestead farmer, choose the best forage for their livestock. I am not addressing the needs of a large herd of dairy animals or a large herd of beef cattle.
Hay comes from two main growing sources, Legumes and Grasses. A third type is from grain, commonly called straw, but can be used as a forage if cut young and before the grain is harvested.
Legumes include alfalfa and clover, two popular choices for energy and nutrition. Alfalfa hay can contain almost two times the protein and three times the calcium of grass hay. Usually the protein range for Alfalfa is 16% to 18% . Protein content will vary depending on when the hay is cut and the maturity of it at the time of cutting. Some animals such as a dairy goat or a dairy cow providing milk for your family, may need the higher calorie and higher protein content provided by Alfalfa hay. But for an animal that just needs forage to keep the rumen functioning and to provide some calories and nutrition, a grass forage may be the better choice.
Grass hays include bromes, fescues, orchard grass, rye grass, wheat grass, timothy, coastal Bermuda or Bluegrass. Hay from grasses contains less calories (energy) and a lower protein amount, usually 6% to 10%. Your feed store may carry a mixture of alfalfa and orchard grass, or a mixture of timothy and orchard grass. If your animals need a particular level of protein or energy from their hay, it is a good idea to ask what the bale consists of. I do not recommend feeding alfalfa unless the animal requires the higher energy and nutrition.
Forage from Grains
Thirdly, the grains, such as oat straw or barley straw, can be fed as a nutritional feed if it is cut young and still has the grain intact. After the grain is harvested and the stems are mature and woody, it is straw and the main purpose will be for bedding use or ground cover. Straw is usually cheaper than hay. My goats will eat some straw but I don’t know why they do it. They have plenty of free choice hay available.
Forage for Animals with Special Nutritional Needs
Lactating animals, including nursing mothers, are often fed an alfalfa hay to keep them from losing conditioning during their milk production. Whenever you need to switch from a grass hay to a legume hay, do it gradually. The type of feed contributes greatly to the acid balance in the digestive tract. Switching abruptly can cause bloat or acidosis in your animal.
Young animals that are growing rapidly and have tender mouths may require the softer leafier alfalfa. If they cannot chew the tougher stems, their nutritional needs will not be met and they will not have a good physical condition.
The best way to check the hay you are going to feed is to cut open the bale and inspect it. Moldy hay is not suitable for most animals. Beef cattle can get by using it with out any problem, unless pregnant or very young, but the horses will be sickened from being fed moldy hay. Moldy hay has a distinctive odor. Look at the hay. It should be fresh looking, and include leafy material along with stems. Weeds are not a problem, and goats especially will enjoy the weeds, but make sure that the weeds are not from any toxic plants.
Storing the Forage
Storage -Square bales and round bales are the two main ways, that hay is stored. Hay should be stored out of the weather in a well ventilated covered area. We store our hay in a run in type shed. Every few days we will bring over a few bales and stack them in the barn for convenience. Our sheep, goats, beef cows, and rabbits have free choice hay every day. We use a grass hay for our animals as we are not breeding and have no lactating animals at this time.
The bottom line on feeding hay is to know the content of the hay, look at the condition of the hay, and use the appropriate hay for your animals nutritional needs.
Sources – Hobby Farms.com article on feeding hay by Heather Smith Thomas All Hay is not Equal
The Homesteading Handbook – A Back to Basics Guide by Abigail R. Gehring