Which Hay is the Best for Livestock and Horses?

How frequently this question arises! What is the difference between first, second, and third cut? Which cut is the best?

Let’s look at two opposite cow scenarios.

  1. The first is a 3-year-old Angus-Holstein heifer that is so overweight that her back is flat. The curves and bones usually evident in a properly-conditioned cow have been filled in by fat deposits. She scores a 9/9 for body condition, when the ideal is 5/9. Her owners would like to breed her. She is eating a calf diet second-cut hay, grain, and cottonseed.
  2. The second is a 5-year-old Jersey cow, who is pregnant and providing 45 pounds of milk daily. Her ribs, hips, and pin bones are visible but rounded with fat, giving her a body condition score of 5/9 usually. It was 4/9 recently after a short illness. She is eating second-cut hay, ample green pasture, and grain.

The second cow is getting the appropriate diet to maintain her body condition, except during her recent illness. The first cow, while being well-fed, is not a breeding candidate due to severe over-conditioning. Both cows are eating second-cut hay and grain.

Which hay is the best? The answer is different depending on the animal. The Jersey cow needs more energy in her diet during gestation and while lactating. The Angus-Holstein heifer is not producing anything but fat. The heifer went on the Atkins’ Diet. Dramatically reducing the grain supplementation, removing cottonseed from her diet, and replacing her second-cut hay with first-cut and straw. She is now losing fat in a slow, controlled fashion, and may be slim enough to consider breeding in the near future.

Obviously, which hay is best is dependent on the energy requirements of the animal. Body condition is an important clue to whether the current diet is adequate. Clover Acres has pinned species-specific Body Condition Score charts on Pinterest. If the animal has ideal body condition, the diet is likely perfect for the animal. If the animal is obese or thin, changes are likely needed and hay should be the first ingredient considered.

First, one needs some knowledge of how hay is prepared. Hay is usually cut when 3 or more consecutive days of dry weather are in the forecast. Once cut, the hay is dried in the sun. Tetters spread the hay out helping it to dry faster. When hay is completely dry, it is ready to be baled. Critical to any cut is that it must be dry. Hay that is not dry will grow mold, making it unpalatable and toxic to animals.

The cut numbers simply refer to the order of the cuts through the growing season. In Vermont, we often only get 2 cuts each season. The timing of those cuts depends on the maturity of the grass and the weather. The grass should be cut when it is fully grown, but not yet producing seeds. Grass that is over-mature, has energy going into the seeds while the stems become hardened with undigestible fibers. Hay that is cut from over-mature grass may be a mix of green and brown, but will always have seed heads and feel fibrous like straw. Grass that is cut when it is fully grown but not yet overgrown will usually be uniformly green, have the pleasant smell of grass hay, and will not have seed heads or flowers.

Usually the grass in Vermont is mature by the end of May, but we don’t have 3-5 consecutive days of dry weather until mid-June. As you can imagine, grass allowed to grow until mid-June is over-mature. Therefore, the first cut of hay usually is high in undigestible fiber and low in digestible energy. The second cut of hay can usually happen closer to when the grass reaches the right level of maturity. Therefore, the second cut of hay is usually higher “quality” than the first cut. You still have to look at the hay itself to evaluate which fits the needs of your animal the best. Look at the color (green, brown, yellow), look for seed heads and flowers, feel how firm or malleable the stems are, smell for freshness or mold, toss it looking for dust, look for uniformity in grass type and avoid unnatural debris. If you are comparting lots of hay that appear quite similar, but want more information before buying a whole load for the whole winter, it may be worth having the nutrition of each analyzed. Dr. Johnson can collect samples and ship to a lab for testing.

Schedule an appointment with Clover Acres Livestock Veterinary Services for a nutrition consultation. Each species and production level has unique needs. Body condition and hay quality are starting points for evaluating whether a diet is meeting those needs.

CALVS is owned and operated by Dr. Dianne Johnson. Dr. Johnson graduated from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech in May 2012. Dianne is thankful to be back in Vermont (the other “VT”), where she is close to her family and many friends.

Prior to establishing CALVS, Dr. Johnson did a 6-month internship at Cross-Border Equine in Springfield, VT. Dr. Johnson enjoys working with cattle, small ruminants, camelids, and horses, and will also work with swine and poultry on an as-needed basis. Dianne is especially interested in sustainable farming, pasture management, and preventative care.

In her spare time, Dianne enjoys reading, walking and hiking with her dog, and crafts.

Prior to studying veterinary medicine, Dianne studied psychology and worked as an outdoor education instructor. She enjoys teaching youth and adults husbandry and veterinary medical skills.

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