Cattle producers without adequate on-site forage supplies who have purchased hay should protect their animal investment by testing the quality and nutritive value of the additional food source.
"Forage analysis can be a useful tool to remove some of the mystery concerning the hay that producers will feed this winter," said Glenn Selk, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension emeritus livestock specialist.
The high cost of protein and energy supplements provide further emphasis to heed Selk's advice.
"Testing the grass hays this year for protein and energy content will help the producer design winter supplementation programs most appropriate for the forage supply that is available," he said. "It is hard to think of any year when forage testing was more important."
There are several good methods of sampling hay for forage analysis. Livestock nutritionists generally prefer to use a mechanical coring probe made specifically for this purpose. The coring probe is usually a stainless steel tube with a serrated, cutting edge. It is 1 inch in diameter and is designed to fit on a half- inch drill or brace.
"Cordless drills make these tools quite mobile so that the hay bales to be tested do not have to be hauled near an electrical outlet," said Ray Huhnke, OSU Cooperative Extension agricultural engineer. "Cores are taken from several bales at random to obtain a representative sample to be analyzed."
The hay samples are placed in paper or plastic bags for transfer to a forage testing laboratory.
Grab samples also can be obtained and tested. To receive the most complete and accurate information about quality and nutritive value, grab several samples by hand from about 6 inches into the open side of the bale or the middle third of a round bale.
"Be sure to place the entire sample in the bag," said Cody Linker, Lincoln County Extension agricultural educator. "Do not discard weeds or stems just because they look undesirable. They are still part of the hay that you are offering to the livestock."
Linker added that producers should label the forage samples accurately and immediately, in order for the laboratory analysis to be correctly assigned to the proper hay piles or bales.
"Obviously the more samples that are sent to the laboratory for analysis, the more information can be gained," he said. "Of course, as the number of samples increase, the cost of forage testing will increase as well. Any of the potential nitrate-accumulating hays should be tested for nitrate concentration."
Check with your local extension office about testing options. Selk also said there are commercial laboratories that will test as well.
"Regardless of which option is chosen, the important thing is to get the hay tested," he said.