5 Steps for Proper Hay Sampling

With the first cutting of hay coming off fields in southern states, I am reminded that proper hay sampling procedures are a must.  Today I was brought a sample from a single bale of mixed hay and asked to sort the alfalfa from the grass hay and use those as individual, separate samples.  I was not the only one whose first reaction was, are they planning on sorting it out every time they feed?  (Of course not!) For someone who is very passionate about providing producers with accurate, precise and above all else useful results, this request was difficult to stomach.  No matter what species of animal is being fed, lab results are a useless waste of producer time and lab time if they are not representative of the entire pile of feed or stack of hay.  So, when sampling hay and other forages the goal is to provide WARD Laboratories Inc. with a representative sample.  Here are 5 steps to obtain a representative hay sample:

  1. Define ‘lots’ of feed.

A lot can be one field of the same or a mixed species which has been harvested and bales in one consecutive time frame.  For example, if I had three fields two alfalfa and one mixed alfalfa and grass.  I harvested and baled one alfalfa field, then the mixed field and then a few weeks later finally harvested and baled the second alfalfa field.  I would define 3 separate lots based on species and time of harvesting and baling.

  1. Use a hay probe.

Using a hay probe will ensure samples representative of each bale.  The probe can cut through the side of the bale and take sample from deeper within the bale than a hand grab can.  Additionally, a hay probe does not discriminate against delicate leafy material the way fingers do.  A sample taken with a hand grab will test falsely low in protein and energy as the leafy material, which is high in protein and energy, slips through fingers.

  1. Take a minimum of 20 probes per lot.

If the lot has less than 20 bales, then take one probe per bale.  If more than 20 bales are in a lot take a minimum of 20 samples to represent that lot properly.  The National Forage Testing Association has done research to prove this number of probe samples decreases likelihood of a non-representative sample. When choosing bales to probe it is also important to not leave out ‘bad looking bales’ or intentionally include ‘good looking bales’.  Sample as randomly as possible.  The best possible thing to do is come up with a system to determine which bales to sample and follow it each time you sample a new or different lot.

  1. Split the sample using the cone and quarter method.

Once 20 cored samples are obtained, they will not all fit in a quart sized Ziploc bag. Therefore, the sample must be mixed and split until the sample is small enough to fit in the bag. On a tarp, large newspaper or other clean surface, mix the cores then pile them up into a cone like shape. Divide the cone into 4 quarters discarding two quarters diagonal to each other and repeating the process with the remaining two quarters.  Continue the process until each quarter can fill a quart sized Ziploc bag.  Then send one of those quarters to Ward Laboratories Inc. and save another quarter in a cool dry place.  The saved sample may come in handy if the original gets lost in the mail, or a resample is needed for some reason.

  1. Send the sample to Ward Laboratories Inc.

When placing the sample in an envelope or mailer, be sure to include your name, address, phone number.  Write the test on the sample bag or call into be sure you receive the information you want on your report.  Remember, if a result looks suspicious, Ward Laboratories Inc. will rerun tests to ensure accuracy upon request.

 

For further information on representative hay testing or to become a certified sampler check out foragetesting.org.  Here is a infomative video by Dr. Mary Drewnoski, currently a Beef Systems Specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln:

 

 

Test Forage Make More Money!

Soon we will be entering forage grazing and harvesting season. Although many producers test their hay or silages when buying and selling, there is still a group who either only test for nitrate when they believe they may be having an issue or do not bother to test at all.  There are many benefits to testing feed, such as improving animal health and production, but a major benefit from a business perspective is the potential to improve profitability.  Testing forages can help producers improve their bottom line.

I have attended several conferences where Dr. Aaron Berger from University of Nebraska Lincoln has spoken about profitability and costs to ranches.  The first point Dr. Berger always drives home is the unit cost of production.  It is important to keep track of all input costs to each enterprise on an operation to know what is profitable and what is losing money.  It is also a helpful tool to see where improvements can be made.  In his presentations, Dr. Berger also points out that the number one cost to produce beef cattle is feed.  Therefore, improvement in feed cost would increase profitability.  This can be done through selecting for cattle that consume less feed and gain the same, sourcing cheaper feed, and precise ration and diet formulations.

Precise ration and diet formulations improve profitability by reducing the occurrence of over or under supplementation to reach animal production goals.  To produce a precise and accurate ration or diet, forage testing must be done, otherwise producers are just guessing about the nutrient content of the forage.  Forages are variable plant material.  As the feed and NIR reviewer at Ward Laboratories Inc., I have seen alfalfa hays and grasses vary from a crude protein level of about 15% to 25% and 4% to 18% on a dry basis respectively.  The fiber content of various forages is also variable.  Acid detergent fiber (ADF) is used to calculate the total digestible nutrients (TDN) of the feed, so variation in ADF affects energy supplementation.  Neutral detergent fiber (NDF) affects how much of a forage or hay the animal will consume.  Minerals are also variable in forages and obtaining an idea of the mineral content may also affect mineral supplementation strategies, such as which mineral to feed or possibly creating a custom mineral mix.  If you would like to learn more about forage variability read Quarrels About Quality: 14 Sources of Variation in Forage and Hay Testing.

Testing hay and forage to formulate rations and diets can reduce underfeeding and overfeeding of animals.  When a producer overestimates the nutritional value of his forage, it can negatively affect the animal’s health.  Thereby impacting performance, reducing reproduction rates, decreasing lactation, or growth.  While the feed cost of an overestimated diet is lower, not meeting the nutritional requirements of that animal results in reduced performance and impacts the producer’s profitability.  An oversetimated nutitional value mresults in less protift. When a producer underestimates the nutritional value of a feed, overfeeding the animals results in increased feed costs and decreased profitability.  Additionally, if overfeeding is extreme, cows can become obese, which also can negatively impact reproductive performance.   In the case of underestimating a forage’s nutritional value, the cost of a NIR forage test ($15) at Ward Laboratories, Inc. is quickly made up in feed costs in just a few days of feeding.

 

So, to improve profitability, at a minimum forage testing is a necessity.  If cattle are grazing a pasture, crop residue, or cover crops, there is variation and a simple NIR test can provide information to make an informed supplementation strategy.  If cattle are consuming a total mixed ration, I would advocate to test all ingredients for the most profitable feeding ration possible with those ingredients.  Using feed testing to make decisions can increase an operations profitability through meeting animal nutrient requirements and therefore performance goals, as well as not wasting feed and money overfeeding animals.

Here are some other resources if you are still doubting the merit in hay testing for profit:

Test, Don’t Guess

The Importance of Forage Testing

Profit Tip: Understanding a Forage Analysis

There’s Money in Testing Your Stalks and Hay

A $50 Hay Test Can Save Producers Money