What a difference a few weeks can make, and it seems the timely rains are a distant memory, as now we are again looking for rain, especially since we missed that "Cinco de Mayo" rain that everyone always talks about. With that said, the early wet spring, has allowed some to make hay in the last few weeks, which brings me to today's topic - factors that influence hay quality.

Hay varies in quality more than any other harvested feed crop. Hay quality can vary widely, even when composed of the same species, when grown in the same vicinity, and when grown and cured under similar conditions.

Moreover, hay can look good, i.e., dark green color, and still be low in quality, or can look bad, that is not have a good dark green color, and still be good quality. Ultimately, the best way to determine what quality you have is to have it tested by a forage testing lab.

Factors that determine hay quality include stages of maturity at harvest, soil fertility, nutritional status of the plant, available moisture during the growing season, season of the year, ratio of leaves to stems and stem size, weed control, foreign matter, harvesting, weather at harvest and storage. Of all the factors that influence quality, stage of maturity or age of the plant at harvest is the most important. In fact, about 70 percent of the quality of hay is determined by stage of maturity at harvest. As a plant matures toward heading, from flowering to seed formation, the growth pattern changes from leaf production to hard stem formation.

Since leaves are more digestible than stems and contain most of the nutrients, the higher the leaf content, the higher the quality.

Furthermore, the younger the plant, the greater the proportion of leaves, thus a higher quality plant. A quick visual method to determine maturity can be done by looking for seed heads. As a simple guide, grass hays with only a few immature seed heads are generally a higher quality, and as the number and amount of mature seed in the heads increase, the quality decreases.

Soil fertility is also an important factor in determining the ultimate quality of hay. Nitrogen fertility rates for grasses greatly influence the crude protein levels in forages harvested at the right stage of maturity. The nitrogen content of a forage is a direct measure of its protein content. The nitrogen that is extracted from a forage is multiplied by a factor of 6.25 and reported as percent crude protein. Thus, a forage containing two percent nitrogen contains 12.50 percent crude protein. Phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients are also critical to maintaining stands and producing quality hay. A soil test should be taken once a year to determine the amount of plant nutrients remaining after last year's hay crop to replace those elements removed by harvest.

So when is the best time to make hay? The proper stage of growth for harvesting forages is the time when the greatest amount of total digestible nutrients per acre may be obtained. This usually represents the best compromise between quality and yield. Generally, the younger the crop at the time of harvest, the higher the quality but the lower the yield. The more mature the crop at time of harvest, the higher the yield but the lower the quality. Research also indicates that forages are higher in quality during spring and fall and lower in quality during mid-summer.

Recent experiments (USDA) indicate that cattle prefer afternoon cut hay over morning cut hay. Since cells make sugars and carbohydrates in the presence of sunlight, afternoon cut hay may contain a higher percentage of highly digestible sugars and carbohydrates. Plants cut in the morning have partially depleted the supply while respiring or using energy through the night.

Color is not always a good indicator of quality, as it usually is a good indicator of the curing process following cutting. A bright green hay usually means the hay was cut at a desirable stage of maturity and cured rapidly. The yellow color that is often seen, is a sign that there was a significant amount of sun bleaching, but quality is not seriously reduced. A brown colored hay usually indicates that excessive moisture fell on the hay during the curing process, and usually has a musty odor. Odor can also be an indicator of reduced quality. Hay with off odors like mildew, mustiness or rotten odors can be an indicator of reduced quality and poor acceptance by livestock.

The goal of harvesting should be to maintain the highest nutritive quality as possible through cutting at the proper stage of maturity, promoting rapid drydown, maintaining high leaf content and timely baling at the right moisture content. Bacteria and fungi that cause hay to deteriorate, need moisture to grow. If hay is baled at too high moisture, bale heating occurs shortly after harvest. Microbes are not able to reproduce if moisture levels are below about 14 percent.

Small 60-70 pound bales can be baled at 16-18 percent moisture while hay stored in large round bales needs to be dryer (14-16 percent) at baling since moisture is unable to escape from the center of a large bale.

Another factor that can impact hay quality is the presence of foreign matter. Yes, weeds are the biggest problem, and sometimes even injurious materials like threeawn grass seedheads, sandburs, and toxic plants can be found. When buying hay, you should always look for foreign matter. Finally, soft, pliable hays are usually more palatable than hard, firm hays, as this usually indicates the lack of lignin or stem maturity.

More information on hay quality can be found at http://foragesoftexas.tamu.edu/pdf/haymngt.pdf.

Jeffrey Stapper is the Agricultural and Natural Resources Agent for Nueces County. Readers may contact him at (361) 767-5217.