The first day of June means that hay production is in full swing—but do you know what you really have going into the barn? Testing forage quality is key to exercising proper cattle nutrition all year long.

According to Andrew McCorkill, University of Missouri Extension livestock specialist, alfalfa is a sweet treat to cattle and horses. “Cows and horses think alfalfa looks like candy, smells like candy and tastes like candy,” he says.

However, not all hay that looks good is good hay—and not all good hay looks good, he adds. The only way to know is by testing samples to determine the nutritional value.

At a recent MU Extension alfalfa tour at Rick and Justin Williams' farm in Ash Grove, Mo., McCorkill educated producers how testing gives nutrient information needed to make supplement decisions.

It's a cheap, but wise investment. The key is to know what the analysis means.

In this Oregon State University presentation, terms such as neutral detergent fiber (NDF) and total digestible nutrients (TDN) start to make more sense. Close evaluation of your hay analysis (see slide six) will help producers identify which bales offer premier nutrition, and can use that information to prioritize feeding.

Additional information from Rick Rasby and Jeremy Martin at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln explains each term in a feed analysis, and offers an easy to follow example to deciding the value of first-cutting alfalfa.

For accurate results, use a hay probe to take a core sample from the round side of a round bale, or the end of a square bale between ties. Do not take random flakes or hand-grabbed samples. Probe between 10 and 20 bales and get a sample that weighs about a pound. Sort hay into lots by hay type. Do not mix cuttings, fields or types.