Hay Nutrition Testing

Hay testing is by a hay bale probe to sample multiple bales from a single field or cutting, amounting to one bale per wagon load. All samples of that cutting or field are mixed then sent to an equine based hay testing lab for nutritional testing. By this method the hay test results should be an average for all hay bales in the barn and the hay test results suited for horses.

Compare our equine hay nutritional test results to the standards provided and may be verified on the USDA web site. Alfalfa and grass hay have different standards.


For Alfalfa hay meaning bales and not pasture.

Quality ADF NDF RFV TDN -100% CP
Supreme Under 27 Under 34 Over 185 Over 62 Over 22
Premium 27-29 34-36 170-185 60.5-62 20-22
Good 29-32 36-40 150-170 58-60 18-20
Fair 32-35 40-44 130-150 56-58 16-18
Utility Over 35 Over 44 Under 130 Under 56 Under 16

Key point about the USDA hay nutrition scale is its values are based on 100% dry matter. This makes a difference when comparing hay test results displayed "as sampled" or as "100% dry". The "as sampled" meaning with moisture contained in that sample produces lower nutrient values than when the same hay sample is dried and then tested. This makes the USDA chart values inflated compared to most hay testing procedures that test "as sampled" meaning with moisture in the hay making for lower test results.

Alfalfa and Orchard Grass Mixed Hay Bales

Alfalfa Orchard Grass mixed hay bale standards do not exist. Some sources state mixed alfalfa and grass bales are a means of upgrading a grass based horse diet. Other sources state the alfalfa grass mixed bales are a means of increasing fiber in the protein rich alfalfa. Producers will state that mixing an alfalfa and Orchard Grass planting makes a hay bale horse owners will buy and a method to boost tonnage production from any field. The end result appears the best advice for alfalfa and orchard grass mixed hay is to find its nutrition testing to be less than that for alfalfa pure bales and more so than grass pure hay bales.

Grass Hay

Quality Crude Protein Percent
Premium Over 13
Good 9-13
Fair 5-9
Utility Under 5

USDA grass hay standards appears to be independent of grass hay type making no distinction by grass variety.

Equi-analytical.com actual hay test range for grass hay crude protein is 7 - 15%. What equi-analytical shows the hay buyer is that the range of hay quality is greater than the finer scale posted by the USDA indicates just for crude protein and not for minerals and vitamins. Using an equine based hay testing service will show better the nutritional differences between grasses such as our Brome, Orchard and Oat Hay.

Hay testing key points include:

hay bale probe hay bale probe A bale probe is used rather than hand grabbing a sample. This means that which is sampled is selected unseen by the sample taker.

Using a probe or bore insures a true cross section of the hay bale as the probe cuts through stems, leaf, weeds and anything contained in that bale.

Taking a sample from one bale from each wagon load allows for a field average reflecting hay bale average rather than selecting from any one special spot in a field that may contain better forage growth.

Testing failures include that samples from the same hay bales sent to different labs will provide different hay nutritional results due to each sample being different and different testing equipment or test systems at different labs. This is why we, as all producers, must say when presenting hay nutritional test results that the results represent the value of only those samples tested and can not be a guarantee what any one trailer load of hay or any hay bale itself for that matter may test at.

hay sampleA second common hay test failure is the hay probe versus hand samples is simply a more efficient method of getting a more accurate nutritional analysis and our hay rather than some of the fraudulent samples taken by those that intend to skew results. Testing labs will test any sample sent to them to include a sample of stripped from the stem alfalfa leaves making for high protein, low fiber results. The hay probe method of bale sampling when penetrating a bale will collect stems and leaf to insure a more accurate representation of a hay bales composition.

hay testingThe type of probe used is also important in even the simplest aspects as the bore's tip.

A bore tip that cuts through the hay bale at 90 degrees to the probe shaft rather than pushes through the hay bale collects all stem material where as a simple round tip or angled bore may push aside stem collecting a disproportional amount of the softer leaf.

The serrated tip shown provides that cutting insurance of collecting a more complete profile of a hay bale than a round or angled tip that may push aside stems. The cost difference in hay probes just for those that have this serrated edge is higher and enough so to keep some hay produces from buying one.

We chose Equi-analytical Laboratories, 730 Warren Road Ithaca, New York 14850 1-877-819-4110 http://www.equi-analytical.com, for our hay testing. The cost is a bit more than farm crop testing services so we expect to have a better, meaning horse owner friendly, result. We use this horse centric hay testing service as a means to determine better hay quality analysis for our horse hay buying customers that seek to provide a more balance horse diet. Other than horse owner hay buyers will find the same hay tests sufficient for their animals.

Using an equine based hay testing service is opposed to a farm hay testing service that produces results largely limited to most and in some cases all the USDA hay quality indicators but not all horse centric mineral and vitamin requirements.

That horse hay buyer value is well demonstrated by equi-analytical sample hay test results shown below that includes horse hay nutritional specific concerns.

alfalfa hay test

Logic Stream

Neither green pasture or baled hay have all horse nutritional requirements. Granted horses can survive on either green pasture or baled hay, but not prosper to full potential. Horse owners buy and provide supplements to their horses. Horse supplements for green pasture and baled hay while different are closely priced. If buying lower cost grass hay bales saves $2 per bale over alfalfa hay bales and a horse consumes 100 bales a year that $200 is better spent on supplements to increase the bulk fiber available to the horse through grass hay over that of alfalfa.

horse pasture

"Common errors of supplementing [horse diets] ...adding ingredients...and creating dietary imbalance..." Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 6th edition, National Research Council, p 223

With Cowbones making all hay test results available on this web site the horse owner wanting to have a third party analysis of those results for horse diet development will find ample resources on the web such as http://www.equilibrateequine.com. These companies, typically horse veterinarians with a concentration in nutrition, will examine hay test results and supply supplemental feeding instructions to insure the specific diet preferred i.e. maintenance, growth, performance and such. By these controls is the best we can do to provide as much transparency as can be developed for our hay quality.

At the very least those horse owners without access to a dedicated horse diet expert will be able to email the Cowbones hay test results to a retail horse nutrition supplement company such as SmartPak equine supplement company and they can develop a supplement pack that will make up the difference between the nutrition the hay contains and that which your horse requires. This is a better approach than what many horse owners do and "wing it" based on the latest magazine article or the conjecture horse owners are well known for passing about to others.

If choosing to send Cowbones hay test results to SmartPak the additional information they will require to select the correct feed supplement includes: Gain if any fed, Activity, Size of horse and Life stage/age.

The bottom line is that this system of Cowbones being a dedicated to hay production farm, horse based hay testing, plenty of horse dietary or science based third party hay evaluation services and horse owners committed to horse health means that each horse may have available to it as close as any of us can make it the correct quantity of fiber and the right levels of protein, minerals and vitamins.

horse nutrient requirementsBuy less alfalfa and more grass hay is proofed in the only non-commercial, science based horse nutrition reference we have found: Nutrient Requirements of Horses, Sixth Revised Edition, Animal Nutrition Series, National Research Council of the National Academes.

And, for the hay buyer that uses hay test results and science based nutritional supplements will buy more of what many believe to be lower quality hay. Meaning less alfalfa and more grass. Most discover that day long fiber consumption with daily horse nutritional supplements is healthier than a higher protein lower bulk fiber intake. That cost savings alone of buying less of the more expensive alfalfa hay and more of the less costly grass hay saves more money than the costs of horse supplements.

Hay testing fraud is not limited to hay producers being selective at what samples are submitted for testing. Hay nutritional fraud also extends to buyers that seek the producer to warrant his hay to a specific nutritional value. The unscrupulous buyer may then take his own hay samples, have them tested, may find lower nutritional values than what the producer committed to and then demand compensation for the now lower quality hay. To that end we have on our Must Read section a description that Cowbones does not warrant its hay to any specific nutritional value through the hay testing services and results illustrated on this web site.

Hay Quality Terms

This horse hay nutrition definition listing shows well how humans overcomplicate what is simple. A true cow working cowboy once said: "...all we ever did was feed hay to our horses, we never worried about what was in it and they did fine..."

Supreme: Very early maturity, pre-bloom, soft fine stemmed, extra leafy. Factors indicative of very high nutritive content. Hay is excellent color and free of damage.

Premium: Early maturity, i.e., pre-bloom in legumes and pre-head in grass hays, extra leafy and fine stemmed-factors indicative of a high nutritive content. Hay is green and free of damage.

Good: Early to average maturity, i.e., early to mid-bloom in legumes and early head in grass hays, leafy, fine to medium stemmed, free of damage other than slight discoloration.

Fair: Late maturity, i.e., mid to late-bloom in legumes, head-in grass hays, moderate or below leaf content, and generally coarse stemmed. Hay may show light damage.

Utility: Hay in very late maturity, such as mature seed pods in legumes or mature head in grass hays, coarse stemmed. This category could include hay discounted due to excessive damage and heavy weed content or mold. Defects will be identified in market reports when using this category.

"With the possible exception of lactating mares and growing youngstock, many horses are unlikely to require the very high CP contents of "prime" hay. If such high-protein forage is fed in conjunction with sufficient energy, the protein excess to requirements will be excreted, contributing to the environmental burden of excretory nitrogen."

Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 6th edition, National Research Council, p 150

Crude Protein (CP) Estimate of protein based on measurement of both protein and non protein nitrogen or, the total nitrogen content of the hay.

Total Digestible Nutrients (TDN) Calculated from ADF and used to estimate the energy value of forage. Sum of all digestible organic nutrients (proteins, fiber, fat, nitrogen-free extract). TDN is the most extensively used forage quality value for hay-marketing purposes.

ADF-nitrogen (ADF-N) When hay is damaged by excessive heating, a portion of the crude protein becomes bound and is not available to the animal. The bound protein, calculated from ADF nitrogen, can be subtracted from the crude protein to estimate the amount of available protein.

Digestible Dry Matter (DDM) Similar to TDN. DDM is another value calculated from ADF and is an estimate of the energy available in forages. It is used to formulate rations.

Lignin is is a portion of the cell wall that limits digestion.

Fiber is commonly described as indigestible parts of any feed. Those that measure fiber will define that fiber in terms of cellulose, henicelluloses, some of the pectins, lingnin, indigestible proteins and lipids.

Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) This is the fiber that remains after using a neutral detergent to remove the cell contents and pectin. NDF value differs from ADF value in that it includes hemicellulose. NDF analysis is considered to be more useful for predicting intake; the higher the NDF, the lower the intake.

"...[horses] tended to eat more of a high-fiber...than a lower fiber [feed]..."

Nutrient Requirements of Horses, 6th edition, National Research Council, p 219

Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF)Measurement of the plant fiber that remains (cellulose and lignin) after an acidic detergent removes more digestible cell components. As ADF increases, the digestibility of hay decreases. ADF is used to calculate many of the energy values that appear in hay analysis reports (TDN, DDM, NEL).

Total Dietary Fiber (TDF) is as its name indicates is all the various types of fiber contained within a horse feed.

Net Energy for Lactation (NEL) The net energy for lactation is now used more commonly than TDN in dairy ration formulation. It is calculated directly from ADF.

Relative Feed Value (RFV) Estimates overall forage quality, combining estimates of both digestibility and intake (ADF and NDF).

Calcium (Ca) and Phosphorus (P) for Alfalfa. The quantity of Ca and P, as well as the Ca:P ratio, is important in dairy rations. Alfalfa is a good source of Ca but a rather poor source of P. Knowing the Ca and P concentration in the hay can assist in proper ration formulation.

Hay testing we have found through non-attribution informal conversations reveled those producers most likely to test their hay are from high quality production areas which skews average results national or region wide. The goal of these high quality area producers are bragging rights and improved sales. Producers from lower quality regions are less likely to have their hay tested as they cannot compete if the evaluation criteria is simply more nutritional value regardless of how much a horse can absorb. The end result is that national or regional hay test results advertised as average, highs and lows reflect only that hay that is tested and not all hay that is produced, sold or fed to horses.

Email or call 913 773 8110

Alfalfa Hay | Testing | Production | Must Read | Transportation
Location | Purchase | Blister Beetle | Fact Sheet PDF