If you’re buying hay or assessing the quality of your silage, there’s often more to the content of your forage than meets the eye. How will you know for certain if it fulfills the nutritional needs of your livestock? Forage testing is a practical method that’s often not taken advantage of by producers. Most county extension offices will provide forage testing services for hay, silage, grain or even pasture grass.

The Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) of forage is especially important for beef cattle. This number will indicate how much of the feed is actually digestible by the animal.
“A lot of producers look at just the protein,” Bob Schultheis, Natural Resource Specialist at the Webster County Extension office said. He mentioned that it’s more important to look at the overall energy value of forage. An animal’s energy needs are going to increase during gestation, lactation or when it’s gaining weight. If adequate nutrients aren’t available in the forage, having it tested can help producers determine if a feed supplement is necessary. It can also help indicate when it’s not.

Knowing the dry matter and moisture content of forage can be beneficial in several ways and can be determined by a forage test. If the moisture content of hay or silage is too high, this will become an issue as it’s stored. If moisture content is over 20 percent, you’re likely to run into problems with mold and heating. If the dry matter is too high, it may not be as palatable to your animals.

Rainfall and weather patterns are big factors that affect the quality of your forage. What cutting it is also comes into play.
“This year we had a lot of early rain,” Schultheis said. This resulted in the first hay cutting being delayed. “It pushed the date back to June or July,” Bob said. The forage test results for first cuttings in Webster County, Mo. showed a decrease in quality.
Robert Seay of the Benton County Extension office in Bentonville, Ark., confirmed this. “It certainly helps us illustrate the variation throughout the season, of the hay,” Robert said, in praise of forage testing as a way to assess quality. “First cutting samples versus a fourth cutting sample,” Robert mentioned, as useful examples.

Specifics like TDN’s, dry matter, fiber and nitrate levels are important to know, but if accurate samples aren’t taken of the forage, the information isn’t very useful.
“There’s an art and a science to pulling a good hay sample,” Robert said. “That’s where a lot of producers fall short.” The samples need to be random and plentiful. It’s also important to select multiple bales out of the same cutting. Many county extension offices offer coring devices that can be used to bore into hay bales for a more accurate sample.
A good forage test is a starting point to determine if the overall nutrition requirements of your animals are being met.


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