A Guide to Livestock Feed and Forage

Find out how to choose the best livestock feed and forage for the winter months.

Bales of Straw in a Field

Straw is rarely used for feed except when grass hay is in short supply, but a stockpile of it will keep your animals comfortable and warm in winter.

Photo by AGPix/Terry Donnelly

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Livestock feed and forage

In a perfect world, with the ideal climate and rainfall, the ideal growing season, and the ideal stocking density, we might never have to feed harvested grain or hay to our livestock. They could graze and forage as nature intended, and we could worry about other things.

Most of us do not live in a perfect world. Many of us will need to plan to feed our livestock hay, processed grains, or some other type of harvested feed in the winter months. Additionally, some stockmen choose to supplement grass with grain to achieve a specific marbling, for instance, or give their meats certain other characteristics.

But at the surface level, how do you know you are feeding the right forage to your livestock?

What’s for dinner, Maaaa?

Livestock feed can be divided into two broad categories: grains and harvested forage — also known as fodder

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Grain feed includes the cereal portion of plants such as oats, corn or milo. It can either be processed into pellets or fed whole. Whole grains can vary widely in quality and nutrition, depending on when they are harvested, their moisture content, and a host of other factors. Pellet feeds were designed to provide a balanced diet and avoid some of the inconsistencies that can be a problem when feeding whole grains. The grains are tested, and if they are low in any of the major nutrients, supplements can be added to balance the nutrients in the feed.

Forages are the wide selection of plants the animal has to choose from when grazing. These could be native grasses, legumes, groomed pastures or woody forbs, and the wide range of plants available in a well-balanced pasture. But unless you live in that perfect world with access to good-quality forage year-round, at some point you will have to supplement your livestock’s diet with hay or grain to maintain good health.

Stock forage

The basis for any good livestock diet is forage and high-quality fodder — the most commonly used being hay. Cattle, sheep, goats and horses have complex digestive systems, allowing them to use plant fiber that humans cannot process. Good digestive health depends on letting those systems do what they do best.

Hays are often divided into two main classes: grass and legume. Grass hay species include brome, timothy, prairie grass, orchard, canary grass, etc., depending on your geographic region. Grass hay is usually harvested once a year, and the growth phase the plants are in or time of year they are cut and baled will make a huge difference in the hay’s nutritional content.

The leaf content of grass hay and how mature the plant is are the biggest indicators of quality. The nutrient value of the hay is at its highest just before the grass “heads out” and produces seed. The nutrient value decreases rapidly as the plant ages, and all of its energy goes into making the seed. The plant will also become stemmier as it matures, making it less palatable and more difficult for animals with smaller mouths, such as sheep and goats, to eat. The majority of the energy and protein in grass hay is in the leaves. Coarse, overly mature, thick-stemmed hay has more fiber and less protein, and therefore fewer nutrients, than finer stemmed, leafy hay.

Legumes include alfalfa, clover, lespedeza and bird’s-foot trefoil. Unlike grass hay, legumes are “nitrogen fixers.” Special nodules on the root system contain bacteria, which are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonium, making them relatively rich protein sources. Unlike grass hay, legumes can be harvested several times during the growing season. A good stand of alfalfa can yield up to four cuttings a year, but the amount harvested will decrease throughout the season. Early bloom alfalfa (right when the first flowers start to open) has the highest crude protein content, sometimes up to 18 percent, compared with 9 to 11 percent for most grass hay. Weeds can be a problem in the first cutting of alfalfa, and while the amount of weeds in the alfalfa crop decreases with later cuttings, the protein content can also decrease.

Four-legged foraging

For every type of livestock, a healthy diet is largely based on forage. And while every species shares common requirements, each of them has its own slight twist on the deal.

Cattle, being large ruminants, are one of the most tolerant species when it comes to lower quality hay. Their large rumens are capable of digesting more stemmy hay than other species, and they can tolerate a little dust here and there, and even a little mold — within reason, of course. Hay that is extremely moldy can cause all sorts of health problems, not the least of which could be a pregnant cow aborting the fetus. A slight amount of dust doesn’t seem to bother them though, and lower quality hay works for them as long as it meets their basic requirements for protein and energy.

Horses need higher quality hay all the way around. They do not share the large-rumen characteristic with cattle, and while they do have a cecum to help digest cellulose, their stomachs depend on a diet of nice, leafy hay that is free of dust and mold. Dusty hay can cause respiratory problems in horses, especially those kept in stalls. They do not tolerate mold in their hay, and it can cause lifelong issues for them.

Sheep and goats are ruminants like cattle, but because of their smaller size, they, too, require higher quality hay. When left to forage in pastures, goats and sheep will eat weeds and other forbs that other species might pass up. But when mixed into baled grass hay, their smaller mouths find the stemmy, weedy portions of hay unpalatable. Sheep are notorious for wasting hay by eating the leafy parts of the hay and leaving the stems. The important thing to consider when purchasing hay for sheep is that you want the highest nutrient value for the cost, and palatability is a concern in that the more the sheep pass up, the higher the cost per nutrient. Sheep are relatively flexible in their foraging requirements though, and that’s what makes them appealing on some homesteads.

All species of livestock will waste hay if it is fed by tossing it out on the ground. Your best bet for maximizing your hay dollar and minimizing waste is to make sure, no matter what species you are feeding, that you feed the animals in a species-appropriate feeder, or bale ring if you feed large round bales. Some studies estimate hay losses at as high as 50 percent when animals are fed hay on the ground. It doesn’t take much savings in hay to pay for that feeder.

Alfalfa, a popular choice

Alfalfa is one of the most widely grown legumes available. It has been cultivated as a crop for thousands of years. It is versatile, productive, and has a high feed value. This hay is generally well tolerated by most species of livestock. But, as with anything, a few caveats apply.

Blister beetles, which are sometimes found in first-cutting alfalfa, can be deadly to horses. Make sure if you are feeding alfalfa to horses that it is from a later cutting and is free of blister beetles. Horses will also overeat on alfalfa hay, and since it often lacks the fiber content for proper digestion, alfalfa is best fed to horses as a mix.

Dairy cattle have high nutrition requirements because of lactation, and do very well on fine, high-quality alfalfa hay. The cow will eat more if it is palatable, and she will get more out of the hay. Goats do well on legume hay, but if it gets too coarse, they won’t eat it, or they’ll pick through it and waste a good bit.

Drying out

No matter what hay crop you choose, all of them depend on Mother Nature playing nice. A large portion of the United States has gone through extensive droughts in the last five or so years. Drought can take an extensive and far-reaching toll on pastures and hay ground. Lack of moisture can slow plant growth and suppress root development. Without adequate root structure, plants are unable to obtain moisture and nutrients from the soil, which further slows plant growth.

Grazing livestock on drought-stressed pastures will further compromise the plants’ ability to recover from the drought. If you find yourself with insufficient forage for your livestock, the fastest — and perhaps least pleasant — way to salvage your pasture is to reduce your stocking density. Consider selling or slaughtering breeding age females that are not pregnant, ones with questionable productivity, and any that genetically do not improve your herd.

Feeding hay to supplement the pasture is always an option, but hay crops in drought-stricken areas are often compromised as well. As plant growth decreases in response to drought, yield goes down and nutrient quality drops — and prices may very well rise nonetheless. Hay that has been affected by drought may be stemmy, lack good leaf content, and be dry and brown. Hay that lacks good color may be so low in protein that supplementation of grain or other protein sources might be necessary.

Heavy traffic in pastures can also damage plants stressed by drought. So, if possible, remove livestock until the grass can recover. After it finally rains and things green up again, it will take some time for the plants to return to normal, the roots to rebuild, and the plants to recover their energy stores. Most experts advise waiting until the plant has regrown to at least 6 to 8 inches tall before allowing livestock to graze again.

However you choose to feed your stock, whatever species you choose to work with, and whichever program works best for you, keeping good-quality forage in front of your animals whenever possible will go a long way toward keeping them healthy.  

Read more: Making hay in Osage County, Kansas the old-fashioned way.


How to tell if it's good hay

The most reliable way to know the exact quality of your hay is to have it tested. Most extension offices offer this service — some for free. A certified forage testing lab will also be exact. But if you’re wanting a quicker, more inexact way of determining hay quality, here are a few things to go by.

Color: Good hay should be bright green in color. Good color indicates it was cut at the right time and should be higher in vitamins. Brown hay will likely have far fewer nutrients. Hay could be brown because it was put up too late, or because it was baled without properly allowing it to cure. Hay that was baled wet will also mold throughout the bale.

Leaf/Stem Ratio: The more leaves the hay has in relation to stems, the higher quality the hay will be.

Snap Test: Take a handful of hay and fold it in half. If the hay bends, it has good moisture content and should be palatable. If it breaks, it’s drier and not
as good.

Smell: Good hay, no matter what species, should smell clean and fresh. A little dust is not a deal-breaker, but if it is moldy, or smells musty, look elsewhere for better hay. To tell if it’s dusty or moldy, shake a flake of it out. Mold will appear a grayish-white color.


By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper, and by night she manages The Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric. Over several decades, she has learned to manage all sorts of livestock, and prefers to feed forage whenever possible.