So by now, you have probably heard the hype about testing the quality of your hay. But why do it? Is it worth the time and money? These are questions that you will have to answer for yourself, but there are some reasons you might want to consider it.
You can find out what you are feeding your animals, or maybe not feeding them. If selling the hay, you will have a better idea what you are selling, making it easier to determine a fair price. Comparing results over multiple years can help you identify trends in your production, such as a decrease in quality as a stand declines, or effects of new management strategies, techniques, varieties, etc.
But, it is important to remember that the results you get are only as good as the sample provided to the lab. You must be able to account for variation between bales and across the field while minimizing sampler error. To accomplish this, it is important that a sample come from one field and one cutting. Don’t mix forages or cuttings, as the quality can be very different. Most labs now are using near infrared reflectance (NIR) to analyze forage samples for quality. This means that all the hay from one cutting must be represented by a thumbnail sized, ground sample! Often no more than 1/2 a gram. So it is easy to see why your sampling technique and handling are very important.
To account for variation across a lot of hay it is recommended that you take 20 samples, each sample from a different bale. It should add up to about a 1/2 pound sample by the end, all of which is sent to the lab. Samples should always be taken from the center of the bale on the twine side. This way, the sample represents multiple flakes rather than only one or two. If the field is variable or weedy, then more samples should be taken.
To obtain a random sampling, you could randomly choose a bale to sample then walk 15 steps, sample again, walk 5 steps, sample again, walk 20 steps, sample again, etc. Do not specifically choose a bale or leave out a bale. Besides, with 20 samples, it won’t matter that much anyway. Although, if you are sampling hay to feed, leaving out moldy sections from your sampling can help to give you a more accurate idea of what your animals will actually be eating, as they will probably leave that anyway. But if you are selling the hay, then you must include all parts of the lot so as to accurately represent what the buyer is getting.
The next thing to consider is the tool that will be used. To achieve the most accurate sample, a coring tool is your best choice. Simply reaching into a bale and grabbing a handful of hay does not give a good representative sample. It is important that the tool be sharp and between 12″ and 24″ in length. Shorter lengths have been shown to not represent variability in the bale, and longer lengths tend to produce too large a sample. if the sample is too large, the lab might not grind all of it. This can lead to non-random sampling and bias. The diameter should also be between 5/8 and 3/4 inches, for the same reasons. For a list of recommended tools, see the National Forage Testing Association website listing:
Many of the County extension offices across Wyoming have hay probes that can be checked out in order to take your samples as well, if you would rather not purchase one.
Many labs offer plastic sealable bags that have a place for you to identify the forage type, cutting, date, location and owner. If not, then combine the sample into a polyethylene freezer bag with the info written on it. Avoid placing the samples in direct sunlight, keep cool and send them to the lab as soon as possible.
In Goshen County, we send all samples into Ward Laboratories in Kearney, NB. The cost is about $15 per sample and we have sealable plastic bags from the lab as well as a core sampler for checkout. If you are outside of Goshen County, contact your local extension office to see what their practice is. You can find contact info here:
For more information on forage sampling technique:
For help interpreting forage quality test results: