Making Smart Hay Buying Decisions

Purchasing hay based on quality is a key to ensuring the best product for the price, but it requires being proactive and asking the right questions. When hay supply is abundant, prices are lower and ranchers may not see the benefit in taking the time to price hay based on quality; however, taking time to do this in a year with ample supply will help one be comfortable with the process when supply is short.

When evaluating hay for purchase there are some steps to ensure the best decision is made concerning both economics and nutrition. Not all hay is of equal quality or value; however, it is marketed as such. When purchasing hay, it is beneficial to have a plan and know the needs based on quantity and quality.

Step 1: Determine feed quantity needs.

Calculate how many pounds of feed will get the cattle through the feeding period, whether this is the winter or a longer period in a dry-lot situation. Make sure to include hay waste in your pounds fed per head per day, as storage and environmental losses can add up quickly. Here is a calculation to start with:

Days on feed x number of head x pounds fed per head per day (include a minimum of 10% waste)

180 days x 200 head x 35 lbs = 1,260,000 lbs or 630 ton

Step 2: Complete a feed inventory.

List current resources both quantity and quality. This will allow for determining quantity and quality of feed that needs to be purchased. In certain situations, this may be the end of the process if the feed inventory quantity and quality is sufficient for the feeding period. Yet, depending on cost of feedstuffs, potential remains to purchase higher quality feedstuffs to supplement current inventory.

Step 3: Determine shortfalls.

Conducting an inventory of feedstuffs on a quality basis allows one to determine whether protein or energy is the first limiting nutrient in a ration. Knowing which nutrient needs to be supplemented can be tricky and cost and convenience must be taken into consideration. Working with a nutrition consultant or SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist can be helpful through this process.

Step 4: Find options and compare prices on a per unit of nutrient basis.

Before purchasing any hay, it is important to have the results of a nutrient analysis. Several laboratories are available to send samples to and receive energy or total digestible nutrient (TDN), protein and mineral information. If the individual selling the hay has not done a test, do not be afraid to request one or do one yourself. Most labs are under $30 per test and have a turn-around time of 10 days or less. The analysis provides the best opportunity to make the proper management decision based on the specific cattle nutrient needs and price. By “guessing” at quality, one could be making a serious mistake and end up compromising cattle performance or costing much more than it should.

Here is an example of a price comparison of two hays priced at $95/ton delivered. The comparison needs to be done on a dry matter basis for protein and energy. Simply take the as-is price divided by the percent dry matter to achieve price per ton of dry matter (DM). Then take the DM price divided by percent nutrient on a DM basis to arrive at the price per unit of nutrient.

As-is price ÷ % dry matter ÷ % nutrient = Cost per nutrient on DM basis

$95 ÷ 0.88 ÷ 0.14 = $771/ ton CP on DM basis

  Grass Alfalfa Hay A Grass Alfalfa Hay B
Price per ton as-is $95 $95
Dry matter (DM) % 88% 90%
Price per ton DM basis $108 $106
Crude Protein (CP) % DM basis 14% 11%
Price per ton CP on DM basis $771 $964
Total digestible nutrients (TDN) % DM basis 63% 60%
Price per ton TDN on DM basis $171 $177

In this situation, whether additional protein or energy is needed, Hay A is the best option on a cost per unit of nutrient basis. For assistance in determining cost of nutrient and comparing multiple feedstuffs, a free excel Feed Nutrient Comparison Calculator is available on iGrow Beef or SDSU Extension Economics page.