Dear Daktari, I have always produced my own livestock feeds but the prolonged drought situation around the country has pushed me into buying animal feeds and especially hay. Now in the market, I have seen a number of bales different in color and size. What should a farmer look OUT for when buying hay? [Justus Wanyoike, Embu County]
True, the prolonged drought has hit our farmers hard. For the first time, I have seen a lot of lorries on our roads transporting hay. The booming business is a pointer to a feed deficit. But the silver lining in this cloud is for farmers to strategically consider animal feeds preservation and county governments to start putting up strategic feed reserves for animals. Climate change is here with us and from the Sharm el-Sheikh Climate Change Conference (COP 27) deliberations, resilience building is the resounding message.
Back to your query: What should one consider when buying hay for their animals? We must not forget that pastures are better grazed and in that form, they are more nutritious to the animal. But there are times when grazing animals directly on pastures is not feasible, for example, during drought or you have a surplus that you wish to store for a rainy day. Hay is less nutritious compared to pastures that are grazed directly by animals.
Maturity at harvest
Forage harvested for haymaking should be at the peak of its nutritive value. This is the period just before flowering. At this stage, the forage has plenty of leaves, minimal stem, and no seeds or bloom. This is called the growth stage which is followed by the reproductive stage that will see the development of the stem, flowers, and fruits, and at this stage, the nutritive value decreases. If it is grass, it should not have large seed heads and if it is alfalfa, it should not have its characteristic purple flowers.
Leaves or grass blades contain the largest percentage of digestible nutrients – proteins and vitamins. Good hay should, therefore, be composed of more leafy materials than stems.
Colour and smell
Dull green shows high nutrition while sun-bleached hay (yellow) is a sign that a significant amount of vitamins have been lost. Yellow can also be an indication that the hay was made from over-mature forage. Brown or black is an indication of poor storage in damp conditions. it may appear mouldy and will have a fermented smell. Good hay will have a sweet smell. Hay is supposed to have between 15 to 20 per cent moisture and this is attained through drying.
Presence of foreign materials
The presence of foreign materials in a bale of hay is a sign of poor quality. Foreign materials include weeds, sticks, tree leaves, metallic or plastic materials and garbage. Such materials can pose a health risk to the animals. Handling is another factor that determines hay quality.
Perhaps the best quality hay can be produced by the farmer himself now that the rains are here. Make hay while the sun shines.
[Dr. Othieno is a veterinary surgeon and the head of communications at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Kenya. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of FAO]