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Buying Hay: What kind of Hay to Buy?

Buying hay can be intimidating, especially if you are new to feeding livestock. Here’s a rundown on all the basics you need to know before you buy some bales.

What is Hay?

Hay is a grass or legume that is cut, dried, smooshed into bales, tied together, and then stored for feeding livestock. Basically you are dehydrating grass and saving it for winter grazing.

What is the difference between hay and straw?

Straw is a leftover product that comes from harvesting grain. Think about a stalk of wheat. The seed head is harvested and the grain used for human or animal food.

Now you still have a stalk left behind. Those stalks are harvested and baled just like hay would be, except it has very little nutritional value. That is because all the plant’s energy went into making the seed head. The stalk is woody and not very tasty for animals, but it does make good bedding or mulch.

Hay is the entire plant, harvested before it puts out a see head and gets too mature.

straw bale rough and tumble farmhouse
Here is an example of straw.

What Types of Hay Are There?

This is a big question with many different factors. Let’s start with the type of plant.

Grass Hay

This hay will often be on the cheaper end of the spectrum. It comes from a field usually of a mix of native/wild grasses, though it may have some intentional plantings. We feed grass hay to our cows most of the winter. It is filling and decent enough nutrient wise.

Grass hay can vary greatly from farmer to farmer. One farm may have a rich mix of grasses, while another has a stand of mostly orchard grass. Or it might be a Timothy grass (see below). Ask what kind of grass hay it is, and do a little reading on the nutritional value of it before you commit to buying.

Alfalfa

This is not a grass but rather a legume. Alfalfa is very rich and high in protein. The bales will be much heavier than a grass bale. We fed alfalfa to our goats and to our cows/goats when they are in milk. Clover is another type of legume.e

Timothy

Technically timothy is a type of grass hay but it is one you are likely to see advertised. Horse people like it because it tends to be a finer hay that horses can easily digest. It is also the typical hay used for rabbits who, oddly enough, have a digestive system very similar to horses.

Do I want square bales or round bales?

Hay can be “packaged” several different ways. Before buying hay, think through what type of bales will work best with your farm.

Square Bales

These are usually around 30-60 pounds per bale so you can haul them by hand or in a wheelbarrow, sled, etc.

The benefits of squares is that you can easily move them around yourself so they take no special equipment.

The negative of squares is they are going to be more expensive on the whole than buying a bulk round bale. Depending on the size of your hay manger you might need to haul them around to feed them twice a day.

square bales of hay rough and tumble farmhouse

Large Square Bales

These bales require a pickup at minimum to move them around. They weigh anywhere from 800-1500 pounds.

We have used these this year and they work fairly well. We pull into our shop with the bale in the back of the pick up, then fasten a rope around the bale, anchored to the wall on the other end. We drive the pickup out, the bale falls off the pick up. Then we peal off chunks as we need them.

You can also get nets that wrap around the entire bale. This keeps animals from wasting the bales as they eat them. If you have equipment to haul them around, you can wrap the bale in the net and plop it out in the pasture.

Round Bales

Round bales are anywhere from 500-1500 pounds typically. You can fit one in the back of a pickup but unloading it without a skid steer or tractor would be tough. You could unload a 500 pound one with some real elbow grease, but anything bigger and that bale is staying put without some heavy machinery.

The benefit of round bales is they are cheaper per pound of hay. You also can set them around your pasture and winter graze to spread manure. These big bales also mean you don’t have to haul hay around, it is just there on demand.

Aside from the moving issue, round bales also have o be kept together somehow. They are basically a big swiss cake roll. Some type of round bale feeder is necessary to keep your animals from trampling it to bits and wasting half their hay.

Wrapped Bales

Some farmers sort of shrink wrap bales. This keeps them completely protected from the elements.

Some bales are wrapped individually like big pieces of candy. Other bales are all lined up and wrapped together in a big long tube.

These bales might be slightly more expensive because they have that extra processing.

What is the difference between first, second, and third cuttings?

Hay is typically cut 1-3 times per year depending on rain, sunshine, how quickly it warms up in the spring, etc. First cuts are usually in June, second cuts late July to early August, third cuttings in September if they can squeeze it in.

First cuttings are going to be cheaper. There is nothing wrong with a first cut, it is just that the plants are growing fast with those first spring rains. They will be a bit rougher/stalkier and a bit weedier.

Second cuttings are the most tender. Grass is at the peak of its growth so leaves should be thick and delicious, the stalks not too mature.

Third cutting is probably a second best in quality.

alfalfa hay rough and tumble farmhouse
It’s hard to see it, but this hay is a rich green and smells amazing.

How much does hay cost?

This will vary greatly depending on where you live, the type of hay, the size of the bale, how good the season was, and the time of the year.

Here in Northwest Minnesota, a small square bale of grass hay will run you anywhere from $3-6 on average.

A small square of alfalfa or timothy might be anywhere from $5-8.

Large round bales (1,000 pounds plus) can be anywhere from $65-$225 again depending on those previously mentioned factors.

If you wait until February to buy hay, expect to see the price for bales increase dramatically.

When should I buy hay?

Early. I usually reserve our hay for winter in early summer. Prices are lower in the summer and hay can sell out quickly. Ideally if you can buy hay all summer long and start stockpiling it on your farm then by the time winter comes around you are set.

How do I store hay?

First and foremost keep hay dry. A shelter with a roof is ideal. If you don’t have that, a big silo tarp works well to cover bales and to keep the elements away.

If storing outside especially, it is a good idea to place them on pallets so the bottom bales don’t get moldy on the ground.

Where do I buy hay?

The best option for buying hay locally is to ask around to your friends who have livestock in the area. Other good options are Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace.

How can I tell a good quality hay?

Quality Check

Buying hay is a sensory experience. Smell, touch, sight, and taste all come in to play when picking a good bale.

Hay should have a nice pleasant smell. Moldy or musty is a no go. It should smell a little sweet.

On occasion, bales that are on the bottom of the stack might get some mold on the side that is touching the ground. Nothing to panic over. If the other bales all seem fine no worries.

You may also get the odd bale that is sitting under a drip in the roof and got moldy. Again, no big deal. Though if there are more than the odd bale with mold, pass on that hay.

The middle of a bale should be inspected if possible. The hay should be soft looking. If it is very coarse with thick stems and sticks and such, give it a pass.

Test It Out

It is perfectly normal to buy a few bales or one large bale, and bring some home to your animals to see how they like it. Any farmer who has sold hay more than a year or two knows this is the common procedure.

You absolutely do not want to commit to buying hay for $1,000 only to have your goats refuse to eat it.

If you are testing it out, be sure to set a deadline with the farmer of when you will let him know if you’ll take the bales. 24 hours is the most I’d go. Any longer and you risk someone else buying up your bales.

Want to talk grazing? Here’s my beginners’ guide to rotational grazing.

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Buying Hay for Beginners Rough and Tumble Farmhouse

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