By Lynda M. Vanden Elzen & Tamara Wrayton
At Wrayton Transport Hay Sales, we have been testing the hay we sell for years. In the old days before hay testing, hay quality was evaluated based on general appearance, texture, colour, what was in it, and how it smelled. If you had a fat horse, you fed it grass hay. If your horse needed weight, you fed it alfalfa. Things were so simple back then — except when they weren’t.
Many conscientious horse owners are now making sure to feed tested hay to their equines. From the thoroughbred who can never eat enough to keep weight on, to the paddock potato stock horse who looks at food and gets fat, every horse can benefit from eating a diet that is suitable for their unique metabolic and performance needs. Forage testing takes the guess work out of choosing suitable hay for our horses, and for those equines who are sugar-sensitive, it can be the difference between life and death. These days, what kind of hay it is, or what it looks like, are less important than how it tests. But are all forage tests created equal?
Things to consider:
Was a representative sample taken? A “representative sample” means exactly what it sounds like – a sample that as accurately as possible represents the larger pile of hay it came from. Every bale from the same field is not the same. Every flake in a single bale is not the same. There are many factors that can influence how hay tests, and those factors are not always uniform throughout a whole field. Examples are the amount of alfalfa (alfalfa tends to lower sugar values and raise protein values), whether that part of the field was shady or sunny (sunny areas may be higher in sugar if the grass was more stressed), to name a couple. A hay analysis represents an average of whatever hay was sampled, so make sure the sample represents, as accurately as possible, the stack as a whole. Generally, we core 10-15 bales per sample, but how many bales should be sampled to create an accurate test really depends on the size of the stack they came from.
Where was the hay sampled? Was the sample taken at the farmer’s stack? Or was it taken from a few bales in one person’s barn? If the farmer’s stack contains 12,000 bales, how many do you have to sample to get an accurate test? The answer is, it depends. Different parts of the stack may represent different fields, or different parts of the same field. Some people think sampling at the farmer’s stack is the most accurate option, but it depends on the make-up of that stack. At Wrayton Transport, we sample the hay first at the farmer’s stack to get an idea of how it tests and if the hay is worth buying. Once we have the hay in our barn, we will sample one or more random loads, depending on how much of that hay we have to sell for the year, and then we compare the tests. If the tests are relatively similar (values within a variance of +/- 2%) then we can be as confident as possible that the tests we have represent the hay we are selling. If the tests are wildly different, then we know we need to test each load as it comes in so that we can be confident that the test we hand you represents the bales you are buying as accurately as possible.
Who took the sample? Was the hay sampled by the farmer who grew it, or by a hay dealer who sold it? How many people were a part of the chain of custody of that test, and are you sure that test belongs to the hay in question? No reputable hay dealer would purposely hand you a test that doesn’t belong to the hay you’re buying, but every time a test changes hands, there is always a margin for error. Theoretically, someone could hand you a test for grass clippings from their lawn and claim it belongs to a stack of timothy! It is important to do your due diligence to ensure that you are looking at a test that represents the hay you are buying as accurately as possible.
At the end of the day, a hay test is only as good as the sample that was taken, and all a test can give you is an average of whatever was sampled. Hopefully this article will empower you to ask the questions you need to so that you can purchase the right hay for your horses with full confidence that the test in your hand represents the hay in your barn 🙂