Be a savvy horse hay buyer with these inside tips from a producer and a buyer in the field.
“You can tell a lot about the hay you’re buying just by looking at the field.” Hay farmer Gary Kegley made the comment as he dusted off his jeans after loading a ton of two-strand bales of his coastal Bermuda grass hay into my truck. The comment begged an explanation.
“In the winter, since I’m strictly growing hay to sell, I want to see a brown held, no green at all,” he says as just one example. “In early February, any early spring grasses coming up aren’t Bermuda.”
But in summer, when a field is in production, a tinge of brown indicates other things, such as a field going to seed.
“When a field goes to seed, the top of the grass looks kind of brown,” he says. “You don’t want the field to go to seed. If it has a lot of seed head in it that means you are losing protein out of the grass because it’s going into the seed head.
“The grass is fine; it just won’t have as big a bang for the buck in protein per bale.”
We’d been talking about how tricky it can be to find a steady source of good hay. Kegley started his own small farming operation after he and his wife, Becky, grew tired of hunting hay for their cutting horses. He’s now a conscientious farmer with roughly 60 acres producing three to four cuttings per year of quality horse hay in Palo Pinto County, Texas. The Kegleys sell hay out of the field and from the barn; it doesn’t stay in either place long.
Of course, many horse owners don’t live near the fields that produce the hay they buy; instead, they buy from people like Kyle and Jessica Scott of Hayco of Colorado in Elbert County, Colorado. The Scotts buy approximately 50,000 bales annually from local growers, and sell and personally deliver it to regional clients, mainly horse boarding facilities. They deal mostly in two-strand grass and alfalfa bales, but they’ll hunt for what a client wants.
“I’ll meet some growers who’ll say of their hay, ‘Well, my animals eat it.’ And that’s great!” Kyle Scott says. “But I’m in the retail business, and my customer has to want to pay for the hay.
“I want hay that sells itself, where people come over to the trailer and say how pretty it is. If I have to defend it, I’m not doing my job in finding good hay. I always tell growers, if you have to defend your hay, it’s not worth selling.”
Both men have a lot to say about looking for and buying good hay.
1. Go for Quality, Not Quantity
Don’t listen so much to a grower who talks about how much hay per acre he or she puts up, Kegley says. Hay quantity from a field doesn’t necessarily mean quality.
“For example, I like to cut coastal Bermuda when it’s up and the tops are just curving over,” he says. “It shimmers in the sun, and when the wind’s blowing it looks like waves going across the pond.
“But if I let it grow longer than that, it’ll go to seed and fall over on the ground. Coastal keeps growing and the stalks underneath will yellow. It makes your bales yellow. [And baling then] might result in more hay per acre, but the quality might not be as good. When any grass hay goes to seed head, nutrition in the grass has left the stem and leaf.
“I want to cut when the grass is long enough to make a good bale in the baler; it will make enough hay so that it’s worth baling; and the hay will be good quality for the customers.”
Scott adds that the biggest mistake he sees horse owners make is to buy hay for its price per bale without considering its weight and nutritional quality.
“If you end up with a better bale of hay nutritionally, in the long run paying a little more per bale is better money spent,” he says.
2. Look at a Grower’s Equipment
“I like to see producers with new baling and cutting equipment,” Scott says. “Their tractors can be as old as dirt, but as balers get older they wear out and the bales aren’t as neat and consistent. The newer balers will typically make a more consistent bale. If you’re just buying a hundred bales here and there, it might not matter as much. But I sell 50,000 bales a year, so I want consistency.”
3. Find Out How the Hay Has Been Stored
“When I’m buying hay, I look for it to have been stored in a barn,” Scott says. “You can sure store hay under a tarp, but you have to be extra careful of what you’re getting. When it’s under a tarp, stacked hay is not able to ‘breathe.’”
As baled hay cures, or dries, its moisture content equilibrates to the moisture in the environment around it. The bales will naturally take on and/or lose moisture, or breathe, getting slightly larger or smaller. Even in a barn, growers don’t stack hay too tightly to allow air to circulate better for the hay to breathe.
4. Know Your Colors
Do your research on the specific type of hay you are looking for, and know what “pretty” is in varieties from orchard grass to alfalfa.
Green is a good indication of nutrient content, but a little bleaching doesn’t necessarily mean it’s poor hay or a bad bale, Kegley says.
“Bleaching happens from a combination of the sun and dew. Out in the field, dew will settle on the top of the bale in the morning, and it’ll dry out. You’ll see some [bleaching] after just one day of sun, and if you go two or three days of that out in the field, the top of the hay will turn golden. It’s still good hay, but I want to get my hay in the barn. Buyers like green.”
Conversely, too much green can indicate too much moisture in the hay.
“An overly heavy bale usually means it’s got a lot of moisture in it,” Kegley says. “A very wet bale will get moldy, and the strings are going to sag.
“It’s easy to tell the difference between mold and dirt [when you open a bale],” he adds. “Mold is white and powdery. Dirt is just dusty. You can’t bale hay without getting dirt in it. When you rake hay, the tines of the rake pull in some dirt; that’s just part of it.”
5. Ask To Have Hay Tested
“I would ask to get a sample tested, especially if I were going to buy several tons,” Kegley says. “That’s the best $10 to $15 you’ll spend. If a grower balks at that, I wouldn’t do business.”
It’s just like test-driving a car, Scott says. He likes to make a testing analysis available to anyone buying the hay from him.
“If a guy is standing behind his product, he should let you take a couple of bales and have the hay tested, and feed it just to make sure that everyone is going to be happy—if they flake nicely for the guy feeding and the horses clean it up,” he says.
The Cooperative Extension Service has county agents nationwide that work closely with extension specialists at land-grant universities to make their research and expertise in agriculture, rangelands, weeds and insect control available to the public. Your local agent can help with a variety of hay-related questions in addition to either providing or helping you find a private lab for hay testing. Kegley relies on his local extension agent for advice on identifying and controlling parasites and weeds, and testing soil quality.
6. Look for a Seller Who Wants Repeat Customers
“People aren’t going to pay a lot more for one guy’s hay over another,” Kegley says. “But what you can get is regular customers; that’s what I want. People know what they’re going to get when they come [to me]. They don’t have to worry about stickers or weeds; it’s going to be good hay.”