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Choosing Hay — Fall 2010 | Out Here Magazine

All forage is not created equal

By Carol Davis
Photography Courtesy of Standlee Hay Company

Buying hay for your livestock isn't any different than grocery shopping for your family; providing the right, nutritious food is vital for healthy bodies, whether you have two legs or four.

So when you're searching for a forage supplier, find one who grows what your livestock needs, processes it correctly, and stores it safely, says Mike Standlee, who knows hay better than most. His family-owned, Idaho-based business, Standlee Hay Co., farms some 10,000 acres of hay and produces thousands of tons of forage in the form of bales, pellets, and cubes for customers around the world.

First, make sure you're buying the hay most appropriate for your livestock, says Mike's son, Dusty. Standlee Hay, for example, grows several varieties, including Timothy grass hay, orchard grass hay, orchard alfalfa hay, straight alfalfa hay, and grass/alfalfa mix.

Grass hays, with 10-13 percent protein, are a low-energy feed, while alfalfa hay, at about 18 percent protein, is beneficial for high-energy animals, Dusty says.

"If you have a horse that's inactive, grass is a good way to keep his weight under control," he says. "If you have cattle that are overweight, then grass hay is a great thing to put them on."

Pregnant or nursing livestock require more energy to produce milk, so alfalfa should be added to their feed, Dusty suggests.

Horses on strict dietary regimens do better on Timothy grass forage, says Bob Buckley, hay expert and Standlee's sales manager. "It's very gentle on their tummy and easily digested," he says.

After determining what kind of hay best suits your animals, make sure it is of good quality.

"The number one thing is the green color, because that automatically tells you that it hasn't gone through weather problems," Mike says.

After cutting, hay typically is dried, or cured, in the field for several days before it's baled. However, if rain falls before baling, or humidity levels are very high, the hay can contain mold spores, which will discolor it, Mike explains.

Break open a bale to make sure it's green clear through and that it smells right.

Hay should have a clean, fresh, sweet smell, Buckley says. "With fresh hay — meaning hay that's been taken care of and processed correctly — if that aroma comes back at you, then you know that hay has been taken care of. If there are mold spores in the hay, the mold will encompass the fresh smell."

Alfalfa hay should contain abundant leaves and not just stems, Mike says, so your horse gets plenty of nutrition. And it shouldn't contain noxious weeds, which can be a threat to not only your animals, but others as well. If your horse, for example, ingests a noxious weed and you go trail riding a couple of days later, his droppings can leave behind seeds from those weeds, creating plants that may endanger other livestock.

Finally, find a hay seller that can provide good quality forage year-round. Consistency in your animals' diet is key to healthy animals.

Out Here editor Carol Davis has bucked and stacked more than her share of alfalfa hay.


Standlee's Standards

Standlee Hay Co. is known for producing quality forage. Here's how they keep their standards high:

  • Hay is 100 percent naturally sun-cured, with no dehydration machines or chemicals.
  • Fields are certified noxious weed-free by the state of Idaho.
  • Hay is cut at the correct maturity level, ensuring that nutrients are at their peak.
  • Cutting and baling are done at night when the correct amount of dew helps the hay stay cleaner and alfalfa leaves stay attached.
  • Newly baled hay is stacked under sheds atop plastic to keep it completely dry and mold-free.