UT Extension News: “What is Hay Worth?”

September 8, 2020

By Chris Hicks, County Director – UT Extension Smith County

            Riddle me this: “How can $25/roll for hay be both too expensive and too cheap?” The answer is perspective. For a potential buyer, $25/roll is too expensive if it is a bale of junk that the animals can’t digest. For a potential seller, $25/roll is too cheap if it cost him $35/roll to produce it.

If you are buying hay, the worth of the forage will depend on the weight of the bales and the quality. A fun exercise we have done at Master Beef classes is to have participants try to guess the weight of a round bale of hay. It is not at all uncommon for even experienced farmers to misjudge a bale’s weight by several hundred pounds.

Baler size and baling density can significantly affect the amount of actual forage you take home when purchasing hay. For example, would it surprise you to know that a 4’X4’ bale is only 51% the size of a 5’X5’ bale? Or that two bales out of the exact same roller could vary in weight by 300 lbs. or more based on the bale density?

Quality would be another consideration when buying hay. Is the hay you see for sale on the internet really “fescue with some weeds,” or is it more accurately described as “weeds with some fescue?” When you buy hay to feed your animals, you are really buying a protein and energy source. If you know the protein and energy of the hay you are buying along with the weight, it is easy to compare the price per lb. of protein or price per unit of energy and compare different sources.

Of course, that would require a forage test, which brings us to a discussion from the seller’s perspective. Just because you have something that has gone through a baler, is round, and is bound by twine, does not make it hay, much less feed. On the other hand, if you are producing high quality forage, having it analyzed for quality is a good tool in marketing your product.

Along with hay quality and weight, one should also consider their cost of production when pricing hay to sell. Variable costs such as fuel, fertilizer, twine, herbicide, and labor should be recovered as well as a percentage of fixed costs such as land rental and taxes, equipment depreciation, and insurance. Estimate these costs on a per acre basis and then a per bale basis based on the yield. UT Extension has budgets and specialists available to help with this.

Of course, supply and demand will ultimately have a huge bearing on what hay sells for. Livestock owners looking to buy hay are generally well advised to buy early rather than waiting until the middle of winter to look for hay. Doing so will make it more likely to find a product that will meet the nutritional needs of your animals at a price you can afford. For sellers, make sure you are at least covering your costs of production.

For help with forage sampling or other forage related topics, give us a call at the University of Tennessee Extension office at 615-735-2900.