Ruth Correll: Hay prices versus hay value

Ruth Correll • Updated May 31, 2017 at 6:00 PM

It is May and hay harvest is in full swing, depending on weather, of course. I am getting mixed reports with some producers saying this year is going to be a very good year for hay production, and others are concerned that their hay production is going to be lower than they had hoped.  

Hay is a major crop in Tennessee. Tennessee hay producers average harvesting 1.86 million acres of hay a year resulting in an average hay harvest of 3.9 million tons of hay each year.

Many folks know the general mechanics of mowing, raking, baling and storing hay. However, the actual mechanics of harvesting and storing hay varies significantly from one producer to the next, which can result in variability in the quality and quantity of hay produced and purchased. Whether a hay producer is producing hay for their own use or for sale to other livestock owners, it is important the end user is aware of the relative feed value of the hay being produced or purchased. 

“Quantity” can have two meanings in the hay business. A person producing hay is generally looking to maximize hay yield without sacrificing hay quality and without the fertilizer bill emptying the bank account. In general, a hay producer can increase fertilizer application and subsequently increase hay yield, but such a decision does increase total cost. Similarly, a hay producer can delay forage harvest past the highest quality forage standpoint and increase yield, but it is at the expense of forage quality.

The second definition of “quantity” comes from the standpoint of someone purchasing hay. In many instances, hay is purchased on a price per bale basis. However, not all hay bales are created equal. First off, there are many different dimensions of hay bales. Then there are round bales, large square bales, and small square bales. It would seem obvious a 5-by-6 round bale should weigh more than a 4-by-5 round bale, but many folks do not think about how much variation can exist among bales of the same dimensions. The failure to recognize that bales of the same dimensions may vary in weight by 30-40 percent can result in significant costs. A number of factors can contribute to the weight of a hay bale such as baler tension, variable versus fixed chamber and hay moisture content.

Quantity is not the only factor that should determine hay price, especially from a buyer and hay user standpoint. Quality should also be a consideration. Hay harvest and storage practices contribute significantly to hay quality and feed value. The more mature a stand of grass becomes, the more fibrous it becomes and generally the lower the protein, energy and total digestible nutrients. Even the time of day (morning versus afternoon) impacts the quality of hay. The method of hay storage is also a contributing factor. Many producers store hay outside which can result in as much as a 30 percent loss in quantity over 6 months and it certainly cannot help the quality. Alternatively, the average storage loss after six months in a barn is 5 percent.

Ultimately, the goal is to feed hay that meets or exceeds the minimum nutrient requirements for the lowest marginal cost possible. For all hay users, it is a good practice to take hay samples and have them tested prior to feeding or purchase, but it is even more imperative for someone purchasing hay. Testing the nutrient value of hay can provide valuable information when evaluating the price of hay from multiple sources. It can also be beneficial for hay purchasers buying hay by the bale to weigh several bales and determine an average weight when comparing hay prices across multiple hay sellers.  it is up to the purchaser to do a little leg work to insure the best deal possible. Producers selling hay need to know their cost of production in order to appropriately price their product. 

The “Hay Calculator,” as it is aptly named, can help producers calculate the quantity of hay necessary to feed cattle over a certain time period as well as help calculate the cost of feeding. The more information a producer can input into the calculator, the better the information it will provide the producer. Some of the necessary information includes number of head to be fed, average weight of cattle, number of days to be fed, bale weight, and bale size. The calculator also allows the producer to select storage and feeding method in order to calculate hay needs and cost. In addition, the calculator also has the capability to calculate cost associated with the quality of the hay. It is necessary to have a forage test conducted to receive a useful quality analysis. The “Hay Calculator” can be found at economics.ag.utk.edu/haycalculator.html or by contacting your county agent.  

For more information, contact the UT-TSU Extension Office in Wilson County at 615-444-9584. You can also find us on Facebook or visit extension.tennessee.edu/wilson.

The University of Tennessee Extension offers its programs to all eligible persons regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability and is an Equal Opportunity Employer. 

Through its mission of research, teaching and extension, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture touches lives and provides Real. Life. Solutions. ag.tennessee.edu. Ruth Correll, UT Extension-TSU Cooperative Extension agent in Wilson County, may be reached at 615-444-9584 or [email protected]


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