If you're like most producers, you probably have a pretty good idea what the quality of your hay is. But do you really know?

Less than 10% of beef cow operations analyzed feed samples in 1996, according to USDA's National Animal Health Monitoring System - indicating that the majority of producers are using their best guess when it comes to hay quality.

But guessing isn't good enough, says forage management specialist Hugh Aljoe with the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, OK.

Aljoe says knowing the crude protein content and energy levels of harvested feeds can help producers fine tune their feeding programs and cut costs.

"The best reason to test forages is to minimize the amount of protein supplements needed in a feeding program," Aljoe says. "If you have a higher quality hay, you can match it to the requirements of livestock that need higher quality nutrients."

Aljoe suspects many producers view hay as a filler and rely on feed supplements instead. "Hay's only a filler if you build it as a filler. Hay can provide a lot of nutrients if harvested at the right time. Feed supplements are great when used properly, but without a hay analysis, producers run the risk ofover- or under-booking supplements."

With assistance from their Extension agent, Reuben and Connee Quinn began testing forage quality nearly 10 years ago on their Pine Ridge, SD, cow/calf operation. "We needed to better match supplementation of our forage to the nutrient requirements of the cattle," Connee says.

For the Quinns, most surprising was how much hay quality can vary from field to field and year to year. Now that they have a better idea of their forages' nutrient content, they feed their better forages to the younger cattle and utilize standing dormant forages or lower quality hay fed with high protein supplements to older cows.

Know Your Needs For an efficient forage system, Aljoe says producers need to be aware of two things. First, know the production capabilities, both quantitative and qualitative, of the forages you use for hay. Second, know the nutrient requirements of the livestock that are to be fed.

Most hayed forages can supply all the nutritional requirements necessary for an animal's maintenance and some growth if managed properly, Aljoe says.

To capture the optimum nutrients in forages, Aljoe says, "Always target hay harvest about one week before you think it's optimal, because forage quality decreases rapidly once mature."

As a guideline, he suggests harvesting introduced species within 30 days after being fertilized (assuming moisture is available to incorporate fertilizer into the soil), which can produce hay with a 10-14% crude protein. If harvested when less mature, even higher crude protein contents can be achieved, Aljoe says. "A solid fertility program plays a critical role in hay production."

On native grasses, to achieve a crude protein content of 10-12%, the forage should be harvested before July 1. "We recommend a one-time cutting per year on native tallgrass species to prevent range degradation."

Immediately after baling, hay samples should be sent in for analysis, Aljoe says. With the exception of areas that receive high amounts of rainfall, he says nutrient content doesn't change dramatically after the forage is baled.

Aljoe says testing forages early can help producers put enough high quality up, so they can bale for more quantity and less quality later in the season.

What To Watch Recommended tests for determining forage quality are: dry matter (DM), crude protein (CP), acid detergent fiber (ADF), neutral detergent fiber (NDF) and energy values. The analysis costs about $8-12/sample. For a few dollars more, macro and micro mineral analysis may also be warranted periodically.

Most producers are concerned with crude protein content, but Aljoe says energy (measured as total digestible nutrients [TDN]) is also important, especially with lactating and growing cattle.

"Medium to high crude protein forages can be low in energy," he says. "Anything with a TDN over 65% will meet energy requirements for most classes of livestock. If it's below 50%, you'll probably need to add some supplemental energy."

Over the winter, monitor body condition of livestock closely, if they start to lose condition, or if the weather is harsh, increase the level and quality of the feed.

Connee Quinn estimates it costs them less than 50 cents/cow exposed to test their forages each year. "It's well worth it. Some years we don't get it done and it ends up costing us."

A final economic consideration is the overall cost to harvest and bale your own hay. Aljoe says many smaller producers would be better off buying their hay. "In most cases, you need to be putting up 1,000 bales/year to consider owning your own equipment," he says.

To locate a certified forage testing laboratory in your area contact the National Forage Testing Association in Omaha, NE, at 402/333-7485.

-- Hay samples should be taken from the same cutting at the same stage of maturity from the same field. As a field is cut, keep first and second cuttings, or cuttings that have been rained on, separate.

-- Use a coring probe rather than hand grabs to get a representative sample. And remember, anything you pull out needs to go into the sample. Cows don't get to sort it. Square bales should be sampled from the butt end, large round bales cored from each side and not the flat ends.

-- The true quality of a hay cutting is best represented by a composite sample. Samples from six to 10 bales are representative of about 50 bales.