Hay Quality and the Power of Brand Awareness

Recently I had two conversations about three weeks apart, with two distinct individuals who wouldn’t know each other if they were sitting together on a plane, but the conversations were eerily similar. The conversations revolved around hay quality. Quality hay is often thought of as an oxymoron, similar to” efficient bureaucracy”, and it dawned on me that we as Extension personnel still have a long hard road ahead of us in terms of teaching about quality. Human beings compartmentalize, we put things in nice categories, “the good side of town,” the “kid-friendly restaurant,” those “mean people,” and so on. We do the same with hay and our forages. Ryegrass hay is GOING to be good hay simply because its ryegrass, right? When I think of ryegrass I think of 2.5-3 lb average daily gain in growing cattle, (nothing to scoff at), others think of lush green fields, early spring, cattle fat, happy with their backsides covered in green. Most of the variety tests (I am not speaking to any specific variety here) and our ryegrass pasture samples show a forage product that is high in total digestible nutrients (TDN, mid 60%) and high in crude protein (CP,18-24%); in short, a very good feed for ruminants. I suspect most of us have all those thoughts in our heads when we hear about ryegrass hay. Being stewards of the land, and understanding the limitations of production agriculture (timing, weather, equipment), we KNOW that we are not going to have hay that is as high in quality as the forage in pasture, but how bad can it be? I was fortunate enough to work with Dr. Lemus on a small project looking at hay quality among samples sent in from MS to the LSU Ag Center Forage Lab. We found that on average ryegrass hay samples were 10% CP and 56% TDN, which is a far cry from what we have sampled in pasture!  When confronted with a cattle nutrient requirement question, my Standard Extension Questionnaire that I start with is “What are they eating?” “Ryegrass hay” is the response. “Did you test it”, I ask. “No” is the reply, “however, its ryegrass so it has to be good, besides I tested some a few years back and it was really good.” I think most of us rank hay/forages in our minds, saying to ourselves that ryegrass better than bermudagrass, which is better than bahiagrass, which is better than ____(Fill in the blank)_____. This is what the marketing people would term “brand awareness.” The “Ryegrass” brand is equated with quality; hence ryegrass hay is quality hay. In a practical setting all forage varieties have their strengths, and fit into individual production scenarios and locations. Data from the White Sand Branch Station have demonstrated similar performance with cattle grazing bahiagrass or common bermudagrass pastures, as well as both pastures being similar in forage quality. Bahiagrass is often associated to be of lower value, but ask any producer and they will tell you about the mismanagement and poor fertility bahiagrass can tolerate; is that not a strength in itself?

In my opinion, I feel the Extension specialists have done an excellent job in showcasing and helping producers understand the various varieties out there, and they should be commended. However, I think that too many of us automatically assume that forage type equals quality. In the scenarios I discussed at the opening, cattle were in a nutrient deficient state, and the producers were at a loss because they thought they had “good” hay, simply because it was ryegrass! When we think of hay production, we know there are many factors that influence quality: 1) Forage variety, 2) stage of maturity, 3) nutrient management, 4) environmental conditions and 5) storage conditions. Is it fair to accurately judge the quality of hay based solely upon one of the four factors? One might even argue that stage of maturity would have a greater impact on quality than variety. All too often yield trumps quality, simply because it makes us feel better to say “I put up # tons of hay off of 10 acres last week”.  Talking with our friends, we NEVER want to be the one who caught the smallest fish! As our input prices increase, we must strive to become more sustainable (after writing grants, it pains me to use that word!), and ensure that every dollar we spend results in increased production. Rather than worry about the size of fish we caught, and rather than assume what we have is quality because of its name, we must begin to judge hay more critically, and in looking at the factors that affect hay quality, we can assume that certain varieties have the POTENTIAL to be higher in quality, but that alone does not make them higher quality. Additionally, if we are needing our hay to be high quality, we must test, test, and test it to ensure that it meets our standards, rather than assume it does simply due to the variety it is. The danger exists when everyone involved in the decision making and problem solving (producer, vet, Extension person, etc.) assumes that because a hay was a certain variety it was high quality, and the real problem is never addressed. In both cases, producers were dumbfounded that they hay (or lack of quality hay) was the big part of their issues. In another instance, a producer was astonished that his ryegrass hay was lower quality than his bahiagrass; he could not wrap his mind around that fact (a testament to the power of brand awareness).

In summary, the surest and best way to truly know the hay quality is to simply test it. Hay sampling equipment is available in most county Extension offices, and most Extension personnel will be happy to sample it with you or show you how to sample your hay. I would also challenge everyone (myself included) to begin thinking of hay in a different manner, and rather than compartmentalize hay into these pre-conceived categories based upon forage type, we compartmentalize hay into quality ranges based upon hay test results.

Please direct all questions and correspondence to Dr. Daniel Rivera, drivera@ext.msstate.edu; 601-403-8777.


Note: Much appreciation is expressed to Dr. R. W. Lemus for his input and review of this article.