While price and weight of hay bales is a big concern to many farmers, in my opinion hay quality is one issue that farmers feel helpless about.
Let me start with a caveat: There are many types of grasses that are used for hay production, but in Kenya, Rhodes Grass is synonymous with hay. So in this article I will be writing about Rhodes Grass but this does not mean that it is the only grass species that is baled, there are others e.g.
- Star Grass
- Timothy Grass
- Red Oat Grass
What is quality hay?
It is the ability of a dried grass (or a mixture of grasses), a legume or cereal plant to meet the nutritional needs of a particular animal and achieve the desired response. Genetics contribute 20% and nutrition & management contribute 80% to the desired response
With dairy cows, the most measurable way of evaluating the desired response is milk production. With beef cattle, the measurable way of evaluating desired effect is the weight gain rate.
Quality hay should provide proteins, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins and essential fiber.
Besides meeting the nutritional mark, quality hay should be palatable, digestible, have no foul smell and with no foreign ingestable matter.
Dairy farmers prefer Rhodes Grass because of its potential nutritive (quality) value, while commercial hay producers prefer it because of its potential production.
The operative word here is “potential”, and for us to discuss the quality of Rhodes Grass hay, it is important that we think of it as a food crop like wheat, maize or beans and not as a grass.
With “it is a food crop” mind set, we will then acknowledge that like all food crops, Rhodes Grass nutritive value and production potential are not fixed but are subject to how the grass is managed, the stage of harvesting, curing and post-harvest care.
It would therefore be misleading to give a blanket quality assurance and/or price on hay load, just because it is Rhodes Grass.
Let’s flip the coin – as a dairy farmer what do you look for when buying a cow? Do you make a purchase based only on the (genetics) breed e.g. Fresian? Would you turn down an offer based on health, fertility and temperament of a cow?
I am yet to meet a farmer who has bought a cow without due diligence – from the outright checking the production records to the undercover tricks of asking the neighbors, workers, the area Vet and the msema kweli, Agrovet owner. The thought that one could commit to buy a cow over the phone, is just not plausible.
If you do due diligence when buying your cows, shouldn’t you do the same when buying hay?
True, we bale hay while it is shining, a 2-3 days event – but making quality hay is a process that is spread over the lifespan of the grass, this is when the nutritive value of the hay is set and regretfully not at the baling stage.
Verifying Quality of Hay
How then can one go about verifying the quality of hay beyond “it is Rhodes Grass”?
In countries where fodder production is advanced, hay lab testing is more or less standard.
For this to work the credibility of the testing agency and timeliness of the results are key.
Clear sampling guidelines should strictly be followed, so as to give results that are accurate of particular hay load or batches of the hay load being purchased.
Lab testing is a win-win situation since:
- The hay producer can differentiate his hay from that of other producers and he can set his price on known variables.
- For the purchaser (dairy farmer) you move from the ambiguity of “price per bale” to matching your shillings to nutritional value from analyzed results.
In the absence of a lab test, visual tests are the alternative option and when done in an objective way they can be good indicators on the quality of the hay.
When and where do visual tests start? And who should do visual tests?
They should start in the farm when the grass is standing e.g. before it is mowed. This is because the important indicators of plant health (quality) are lost upon cutting and more so upon baling.
Remember we said we should think of Rhodes Grass as a food crop and not as a grass. Then the NINO rule applies: Nutrients In, Nutrients Out.
So if soil fertility is maintained by putting fertilizer (organic or inorganic), then the harvested grass (hay) will also be nutrient rich. Equally if the grass is deprived of nutrients, it will retain its genetic form (it’s Rhodes Grass) but it will give hay that is poor in nutrients. Simple.
How do you tell if the grass will give hay that is rich in nutrients?
- Colour: does the grass have a deep green colour – this is the color of healthy, well nourished grass. If it is all shades of yellow to yellow-green – then there are issues with nutrient content.
Just the way colour is symptomatic of nutritional deficiencies in humans so it is with plants. Take the yellow hair with kwashiorkor and the relevance of color and nutrient deficiencies become very clear. By the time grass is cured (dried) and ready for baling, the distinctive colours of the standing grass are wiped out and there is a uniform light green.
- Leaf blade size: you should look for a blade that is elongated and well opened, the needle-like leaves are a straight give-away – hapa nyasi imekonda.
- Plants density per meter: fine, you don’t have to go on your knees counting the grass straws, but in farms that have low fertility, grass is very scarce. Farms that are regularly replenished with manure / fertilizer have a thick carpet of grass and baling contractors are excited to work in such farms.
- Height: it is an expression of vitality, vigor of the grass – all influenced by the fertility. This is one visual test that is completely wiped out by baling.
- Weeds: they bulk up the hay with non-nutritive material which reduces palatability (willingness of the animals to eat). Some weeds e.g. in the Datura and Sodom Apple family are poisonous to livestock animals.
This article has been written by Anne Munene. She manages Lukai Hay Farm.
You can read more about her here