A lush, green field of forage paints a picturesque view on a drive through the country, but it also serves as the perfect grazing for a herd of cattle. However, when fresh forage is not available, high-quality hay can be the perfect nutritional substitute and can be a more cost effective option compared to other supplemental concentrates.

Lisa Baxter, a forage specialist with the University of Georgia, states, “although we have the ability to graze 365 days a year in Georgia, the reality is we will always have a few weeks that require supplementation. It is always good to have a month or so of high-quality hay on hand just in case of a failed stand of annual forage or inclement weather.”

Quality forage and hay are essential to a proper diet for cattle. The nutritional value of hay depends on different factors including forage species and variety, management, and fertilization.

“Cool season forages are generally more nutritious than warm season forages. Annual forages are usually better than perennial forages as well,” Baxter says.

The different types of forage also offer a variety of attributing factors to choose from based on the needs of your herd. Legume hay generally has a higher level of digestible energy as well as greater vitamin A and calcium content compared to other species. Alfalfa hay also offers more protein and calcium compared to other species. Also, Bermuda hay is a good source of vitamin A and D without an overload in protein, and it has a better balance between calcium and phosphorus. Forage sorghum is also another option that is good for cattle as well as conservation. It provides excellent hay and grazing and serves as an excellent cover crop, suppressing weeds and protecting the soil from wind and water erosion. While other factors are important to keep in mind, the number one factor that impacts hay quality is harvest timing.

“We recommend harvesting actively growing forages every 28-35 days. We tend to lose 0.5-1% TDN [total digestible nutrients] each day we delay harvest after the ‘ideal’ time,” Baxter says.

With this in mind, forage and hay sampling and testing can provide valuable information toward the health and nutrition of a herd. Baxter notes the importance of determining the nutritional demands of the animal consuming the hay to match that with the correct quality and type of hay. Georgia Forages offers many articles and video demonstrations on sampling and testing hay and forage in order to make smart management decisions. Check out georgiaforages.caes.uga.edu/ and the Georgia Forages Youtube Page to learn more.