How To Visually Determine The Quality of Your Hay

Your animals deserve the best. By learning how to visually determine the quality of your hay that you are purchasing or producing, you are actively doing your part to feed animals well. We should all strive to be the best at our job as we can be. Growing or providing hay is no exception to this rule.

Through the winter months, hay is the most nutrient-dense substance most agricultural animals have to survive on. Be sure you’re giving them the best you can, so they can go through these harsh months with the power of substance!

As you receive a load of hay take the time to stand back and assess it. Is it visually appealing? Does it smell good? Does it look like a bunch of sticks or dried grass? These things matter, and you should never accept a load if it doesn’t meet your personal preferences. Go ahead and unload a bale and open it up to check the quality even further.

Let’s check out how to ensure you’re buying the best you can.

How to visually determine the quality of your hay


When hay bales lack in uniformity and are messy to the eye, it can mean that those bales vary widely in their nutritional quality. Uniform bales will be tight, of the same color and same general texture.

The quality of the hay you buy translates directly into the feed value.

Stage of Maturity When Harvested

The growth stage of the hay during harvest will have a large impact on its nutrient quality. There are four stages in the life maturity of an alfalfa hay plant, and while it is more difficult to determine the stage once it has been cut and cured, it is still possible. Below is a list of the different stages and what to look for in your bales to determine the maturity at harvest.

  • Bud Stage – No purple flower, leafy, with a pliable fine stem.
  • Early Bloom –  Purple flower petals, thicker stems than during the budding stage.
  • Late Bloom – Large and woody stems, fewer leaves, and stemy in appearance.
  • Post Bloom – Large stems with seed pods and a noticeable deficiency in leaves.


The leafiness of the hay plant is where the nutrients reside. The more leaves you have, the better the quality of the product. The leafiness of the plant is also affected by the handling process and weather conditions during harvest. A thing to remember while assessing the quality of hay is when it has been cured and baled it is possible that leaves have fallen into the middle of the bale itself and may not be as visible on the outer layers. As mentioned above it can be critical to open a bale up to see what’s happening inside.

The stage of maturity at harvest determines the leafiness. As the plants mature the stems increase in thickness and the lower leaves are shed.

  • Leafy Hay is determined by having 65%-70% leaf coverage with a pliable stem.
  • Stemmy Hay is noticeable from its thick woody steam and only 10%-15% leaf coverage.

Color Matters

The ideal color of fresh, high-quality hay is one that resembles that of bright green and immature grass. It should be cut during a desirable stage of maturity then rapidly and well cured. Once dried, it will maintain a green appearance.

Discolorations caused by the environmental impact can tell you a lot about what has happened during the lifespan of the hay you a purchasing. It can tell you that there has been sun bleaching from exposure, whether its been exposed to excessive moisture or heat causing fermentation, or worse, mold and mildew. Paying attention to the color can save you from a world of a headache.

  • Sun-bleached hay has a light golden yellow hew indicating it’s storage outdoors, exposed to the sun and other elements.
  • Dark Brown to Black colored hay can mean this product was left out in rain or heavy fog. If it was also exposed to heat while wet, this could cause fermentation and mold.
  • If the Plant is yellowing that can tell you that the hay plants where cut when they were too far along in their maturity stages.

Foreign Matter

Foreign Matter (FM) in hay is considered anything found in the bale that is not hay. FM can be anything from weeds to metal pieces. It is important that animals are fed hay free of FM because they could injure them or cause illness. Hay free of FM is the signature of an excellent hay farmer.

There are two types of FM that can be found in hay. They can be injurious or non-injurious. If there are foreign materials found it is very important to determine their potential to cause harm to the animals. If there is a high amount of injurious foreign material, the load should be refused out of the safety of your herd. Below are some examples to watch out for:

  • Non-Injurious – If eaten are not harmful to animals.
    • Non-Toxic Weeds
    • Overripe Grain Hay
    • Grain Straw
    • Corn Stalks
    • Chaff
    • Sticks
    • Other Objectionable Matter
  • Injurious – If eaten could poison or harm livestock
    • Sandburs
    • Needlegrass with needles attached
    • Rough or hard bearded grass
    • Sharp Point Grass
    • Wires
    • Nails
    • Metal
    • Other harmful man-made materials

Oder and Condition

Your hay should smell close to that of fresh cut hay. Off odors such as mildew must and other rotten odors signal exposure to undesirable elements and will affect the quality of the product, and the animals may not eat it.

Hay condition is also important. Hay should be free of must, mold, insects, disease or damage. It should also be dust free.

The highest quality hay is cut in late bud to early bloom when plants have the most leaves. They are then cut and cured with minimal wind and moisture before being baled into tight squares or rounds and put up for protection from the elements. Your hay should have a greenish texture with a sweet-smelling aroma. If the hay you are purchasing falls within these guidelines you can be sure the product you’re buying is of good quality. And if you’re selling hay of this quality make sure you are advertising it with following three easy steps to Sell Your Hay Faster!

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