What's the best hay to feed my sheep/goats?


There is no best hay.

The best hay depends on the class of sheep/goats you are feeding. It also depends on the cost of the hay. Sheep/goats with high nutritional requirements should be fed higher quality hay. Other classes of sheep/goats can be fed lesser quality hay. If you're buying hay, the goal should be to buy the hay that provides nutrients at the lowest cost, so long as the hay doesn't have any anti-quality or palatability issues.

Quality refers to the percent nutrients in the hay: energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals. While you can estimate hay quality visually, it's better to submit a sample of the hay to a forage testing laboratory. Forage testing is inexpensive and provides valuable information for feeding sheep/goats.

Species of forage affects quality, though sometimes there is little difference in the energy content (TDN) of grass and legume hays that have been optimally harvested. On the other hand, legume hays are usually higher in protein, vitamins, and minerals. Higher quality legume hays (or grass-legume mixes) should be saved for sheep/goats with the highest nutritional requirements: growing lambs/kids and lactating females.

Dry ewes/does and those in the early part of their pregnancies can be maintained on average quality grass hay. The same is true of rams/bucks. Good quality hay should never be fed to ewes/does you're trying to dry off. They require stemmy, low quality forage (even straw) to help them stop producing milk. Pet sheep/goats and pack wethers only need average quality grass hay, plus some free choice (loose) minerals.

You can feed lesser quality hay to animals with high nutritional requirements, but supplements will be required to meet the nutrients that the forage is deficient in. This could be one nutrient or all of the nutrients: energy, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Sometimes, grains and other feedstuffs are more economical sources of nutrients than hay.

For commercial producers, cost is an important consideration when choosing which hay to feed. The cheapest hay isn't necessarily the best hay. Nor is the most expensive hay always the best one to feed. For example, if a more expensive hay provides more nutrients, it may be more economical. Conversely, a less expensive hay might be the most economical source of nutrients.To determine which hay is the most economical, you need to determine the cost of the nutrients the hay is providing.

To determine the cost of nutrients provided by the hay, you first need to know the cost of the hay: per ton or pound. Fifty pound bales that cost $5 per bale are costing you $200 per ton or $0.10 per lb. There is 2000 lbs. in a ton, so there are forty 50-lb. bales in a ton: 40 bales x $5 = $200. Ideally, you are able to purchase hay by the ton. If not, be sure to convert the per-bale price to a per ton price, so you know how much the hay is costing you.

After you determine the cost of the hay, you need to divide the cost by the percent dry matter (DM) in the hay. All feeds contain moisture (water). Hay is a dry feed. It usually contains about 90 percent dry matter: $0.10 ÷ 90% = $0.11 per lb. Then, divide the dry matter cost by the percentage of energy (TDN) in the hay: $0.11 ÷ 58% = $0.19 per lb. You can make the same calculations for protein and minerals. Use these same calculations to compare different hays and feedstuffs.

Goats are notorious for wasting hay. Sheep waste their fair share, too. Animals will usually waste lesser amounts of a good quality hay. Free choice feeding results in more waste. Of course, feeder design can also affect the amount of hay that is wasted. Less hay is wasted when hay is fed in well-designed feeders. In most situations, hay should not be fed on the ground. Large round or square bales should be fed in feeders that minimize waste.

Palatablity is another important aspect of hay feeding. Anti-quality factors can affect hay waste. Animals may refuse dusty or moldy hay or hay with certain weeds. If sheep/goats waste a significant amount of the hay, its cost is significiantly higher. Thus, to arrive at the most accurate cost of nutrients, you need to factor waste into the cost of the hay you're feeding. If the animals waste 10 percent of the hay, the true cost would be $0.21/lb.: $0.19 ÷ 90%. Waste for some hays exceeds 50 percent. Unless the hay is really cheap, this is profits going down the drain. If the hay is cheap enough, wasted hay may be economical bedding.

Improper storage can reduce the quality of hay. Hay stored outside deteriorates rapidly in quality, losing as much as 40 percent of its nutrients in just six months. If hay is stored outside, storing it on pallets is better then storing it on bare ground. Hay stored outside can be protected further by covering the bales with plastic tarps. You'll end up with higher quality hay if you can store it inside a building or under a roof.


Additional reading
Evaluating hay quality - University of Maryland
Hay storage and feeding - Mississippi State University
National Forage Testing Association