What Hay is Best?

They say that the best hay is that which is most readily available. True, for good hay isn’t good if it’s costing you “an arm and a leg” to ship it in from a long ways off. But then neither is good hay full of weeds, mold, or low in nutrition doing you any good either. We buy the best hay possible in our area which once meant traveling a couple hours one way but now is just a ten minute drive since we moved to a more fertile area.

My father would bale hay at all hours of the day and night to get the best moisture levels and was very particular about what hay he bought when he quit working running a ranch. I am no expert, but I’ve learned a thing or two from him and the men I’ve bought from who were experts. Because ignorance won’t save you money, I’d highly recommend you know about the types of hay produced in your area and when they are at their peak nutrition levels to cut and to bale so as to preserve that nutrition.

  • Through gifts of hay from others, I’ve learned that animals have to consume a lot more hay if it is low quality to try and satisfy their needs. The higher the quality, the less hay you have to feed and the better the animals look.
  • Time and money are spent on fighting worms and disease when you use a low quality as it leaves the animals susceptible to both. It means fewer ticks and remember, predators like the weak.
  • The next best hay is that which will best feeds the type of animal you have. Horse hay like Brome is not a good choice for sheep and goats. So I have looked for that which will best suit cows, sheep, goats, and yes, rabbits. You could even add chickens as mine regularly visit the hay yard to nibble on alfalfa leaves.

(1.) Through 34 years of experience and a variety of animals, I’ve settled on alfalfa/orchard grass in part because it is what is readily available within a short distance (ten minutes) and is put up by the best hay producer in our area. (2.) The goats will eat every morsel and they won’t with straight alfalfa but instead will waste a great deal of the stems. (3.) The alfalfa is high in calcium and protein levels which dairy animals need.  (4.) It has enough orchard grass in it to wear down the rabbits teeth which never quit growing and the alfalfa is great for them when they kindle and are producing milk. Plus it is a great sheep feed, pig feed (pigs need roughage too and it has the calcium for farrowing), and cattle. All animals we have raised, oh and I almost forgot, yaks too.

Alfalfa is a forage legume which is rich in mineral content compared to grasses, and is a good source of calcium, phosphorus, and magnesium, which is critical for the formation and maintenance of bone, teeth, and muscle contractions and are a major component in milk.

Alfalfa hay is high in energy, ability to digest, minerals, and protein, most of which is in the leaves. The smaller the stem, the less stem per leaf ratio and the higher the nutrients and more palatable it will be. You want second cutting because the stems are smaller than the first cutting and you want hay from alfalfa plants that are younger in years as the stems are smaller than older plants.

Straight high quality alfalfa fed in large quantities near the end of gestation will often lead to milk fever in adult cows at calving and I’ve had it in goats too because of its high potassium levels. Milk Fever is much trickier to treat in goats than cows. The orchard grass in the mix prevents this. Right after the offspring are born, alfalfa is needed for its calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, protein, and potassium levels as the needs of an animal greatly increase as they produce milk.


The best alfalfa is second and better yet third cutting as the stems of the alfalfa are smaller. Alfalfa is a perennial and a younger crop is also smaller stemmed. Hay must be cut when the nutritional level is at its peek. It must have sufficient moisture as this makes it more palatable. Too dry and it is just plain poky. I find it also tends to mold as it does when too wet also. It takes a pro to get it just right.

Alfalfa can cause calcium stones in the kidneys of rabbits, goats, sheep, and cattle. The addition of grass hay can prevent that.

In rabbits, it is a particular problem as they are efficient calcium absorbers and excrete calcium into their urine. It is the white chalky stuff you see in the tray below the cage. When I don’t use store pellets and use hay instead, I don’t have any white in the trays below the rabbit cages. I also don’t have to trim teeth.

But orchard grass isn’t available everywhere. In eastern United States it won’t grow because it doesn’t like its feet wet. There you have timothy hay which is good hay. So I’d use that blended with alfalfa if that was where I lived. Here we also have a little brome hay but it is better suited for horses and we have crested wheat grass which my dad use to tell me took a knowledgeable person to put it up right to save the nutrients. My goats aren’t fond of it and you don’t see it mixed with alfalfa. Probably does not hit its peek at the same time as alfalfa.

The orchard grass/alfalfa mix must have plenty of salt in it for the rabbits as they don’t touch a salt lick when I put one in. That may not be the case in your area because it would depend on the soil but I’m thrilled as it is one less thing to by. As for my sheep, goats and occasional beef, need additional sources of salt.

If you are looking for hay, I’d…

  • Assess your situation. What do you have available for feed choices?
  • What variety of animals do you need to feed and what are their needs?
  • Can you satisfy all their needs with one type of hay?

Simplifying makes life easier.















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