The sensory method
The simplest method of hay analysis is called the organoleptic or sensory method. It includes five categories, and each receives a certain percentage of points.
(30 percent) is the most important criterion. However, this area ranked fourth highest (of five) in the Rutgers study of
owner concerns. Maturity relates to the stage at which the hay was cut and baled. The more mature the hay, the lower the digestibility
and the lower the nutritional content. This can be determined by looking at the hay and feeling it. The more stems and seed
heads and the more coarse and brittle the hay, the more mature it is. Many owners get maturity confused with cutting, as in
the first, second or third cut of hay from a particular field. It is generally perceived that second-cutting hay is better
(has more nutritional value) than first-cutting hay.
The important point, however, is that within a particular hay type, the stage of maturity at cutting is far more important
to the quality of hay than when it was cut. "Typically, second-cutting hays in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states are
harvested at a more immature stage than first-cutting hays and under better harvest conditions," Sirois says. "It is these
factors, rather than the notion of cutting that exerts an impact on final forage quality. High-quality grass hay contains
few seed heads, high-quality alfalfa should not contain any seed pods and few blooms and high-quality clover should contain
no mature, weathered flowers."
(30 percent) is the next category. "Leaves contain 60 percent of the total digestible nutrition, 70 percent of the protein
and 90 percent of the vitamins in hay, making leafiness highly important in hay evaluation," says Terry Poole, University
of Maryland Extension Frederick County. Hays with mostly stems and few leaves are likely of poor quality (Photo 2). And if
a hay has a high amount of shattered or dislodged leaves, it indicates excessive handling — possibly in the raking process
or because of additional turning and drying needed if a hay was rained on after cutting — and will likely be of lesser quality.
accounts for 20 percent of the total. This can best be determined by examining and smelling the hay to determine mold, dust
and important information about the drying or curing process. Hay that has been baled while too green or wet can develop extremely
high temperatures within the bale (in excess of 100 F). This heat can make the hay brittle with a burnt or unpleasant smell.
This heat can also cause the hay to become dusty, and the moisture at baling can produce mold.
Mold and dust in hay can be a problem for all horses and a significant issue for sensitive individuals. It is estimated that
one in six horses suffers from some type of allergic respiratory condition during its lifetime, and airway inflammation can
severely affect performance and overall health. Many horse owners soak their horses' hay before feeding in an attempt to remove
mold, dust and other allergic particles. New products are available that essentially steam clean entire hay bales, greatly
reducing the amount of possible allergic particles. Good-quality, correctly cut, dried and baled hay should be free of dust
and mold, but this new technology allows owners another way to help improve hay quality and assist horses prone to respiratory
Photo 2: The presence of seed heads and a high amount of stem indicates hay that was cut at a late stage of maturity. This
field has passed the point of cutting for quality hay and will now produce rougher and steamier hay of lower nutritional value.