a large round hay bale in a paddock of cut grass

Hay - there is nothing better than having a shed full of hay - as many farmers will say “It’s like having money in the bank”.

Whether it’s in your shed to feed out during winter, or a stock reserve for times of drought, for hay to be of any use it needs to be good hay.

What makes good hay?

If you aren’t in a position to make hay off your own property, then it needs to be purchased.

You can buy it ready made or as standing hay - we will look at standing hay later in the article.

Hay that is already baled comes in all shapes and sizes. Conventional bales - sometimes fondly referred to as ‘idiot bales’!, large round bales, medium squares (four strings) or large squares (Freeman bales with six strings). Like any other feed your livestock eats, it needs to be good quality to be economic and of benefit to the stock.

It is a good idea when buying hay to go and have a look at what you are buying. The saying “don’t buy sight unseen” definitely applies to hay! When you arrive at the shed, the first thing to take note of is the smell. Good hay will smell sweet! If there is a hint of mouldy odours, the hay is probably old or baled when it was too damp. Avoid hay that smells musty. It is not good for the lungs or stomachs of livestock and can affect people’s breathing.

Check the bales

If you are satisfied that the hay smells good, pull some out of a bale and have a good look at it. If it is dusty, that’s not a good sign either. Good hay should be relatively dust free. Look at the colour - is it a nice green? Not grass green, but it should still have retained some colour and be nice and bright. If it is all golden, then it is more akin to straw and has been cut and baled when the grass has well and truly dried off and will have little nutritive value.

It is easier to pull a sample out with conventional bales, but round bales are usually pretty good too. The medium and large squares can be a bit more difficult as they can be quite dense.

The outer bales in the shed will always have a drier look, which is why it is important to actually pull some from the bale. Don’t be put off by the more weathered look if they look clean.

Take note if the bales on the outside have been exposed to the weather - if they are stacked right to the edges of the shed and are exposed to rain, there is a possibility the most outer bales have gone off from moisture getting inside so you don’t want to buy these.

Also be aware of any holes in the shed roof - if when you look up at the roof and see light, there is potential that rain has got in and ruined the bales below it.

Finally, you need to be confident the bales have been stored in the shed straight after being baled. Sometimes the bales are stacked in the paddock and covered with a tarpaulin before being carted to the shed. This isn’t ideal as it leaves the bales more vulnerable to bad weather and rain getting in which will cause the hay to go mouldy.

Not all hay is equal

Not all hay is equal. The term “meadow hay” can include hay that is made from the best grass mixes along with some clover and plantain, to “roadside” type grasses which could include weeds and other unwanted plants. As hay isn’t cooked like baleage, it has the potential to bring undesirable seeds to your property and cause a big headache later when you notice weeds and unpalatable grasses springing up in your paddocks.

Ask the person who you are buying the hay from if you can look at the paddocks it has been cut from. If the bales aren’t straight off the paddock, you should be able to see by the regrowth of the pasture what the hay will be made up of.

Avoid hay that has thistle stems poking out - it means the rest of the thistle will be inside the bale just waiting to reseed your land. Thistles are also a pain literally when feeding out (look forward to evenings spent with a prickle extractor to relieve those sore fingers) and although livestock like to chew away on thistle flowers in their growing stages, they generally don’t like the seed heads in hay any more than we do.

Lucerne hay

Lucerne hay is a good high protein type of hay, but can be quite tricky to make. Because of the stalks, it needs to be cut at exactly the right time, not left too long for the leaf to frizzle up and needs to be baled at exactly the right moisture level. Most lucerne hay is cut with a mower-conditioner to optimize drying of the stem.

When buying lucerne hay, look out for leaf that just crumbles when when you pull some out of the bale. If it does crumble, your animals will virtually be eating lucerne dust and more than likely leave the stalks behind. Lucerne is expensive in comparison to meadow hay, so you want to make sure there is plenty of good leaf in the bale which doesn’t disintegrate off the stalk.

The bales of lucerne are also much heavier than meadow bales, so if you are having to stack or move them on your own, take this into account. A lucerne cocksfoot mix is a good alternative to straight lucerne - kinder to your wallet but still more protein than a straight meadow hay.

Standing hay

Probably the most foolproof way to ensure the hay you buy is exactly what you want is by buying standing hay off someone.

Standing hay is just grass in a paddock that you will turn into hay. You can see exactly what you’re getting and you can decide when to cut and what sort of bales you want.

You can organise a contractor to make the hay if you don’t have your own gear, and hopefully if the contractor is on board, you can cut it when you and they agree it is ready.

Sometimes contractors themselves will buy standing hay and on-sell it, so if you know of a farm that is selling standing hay to a contractor, you can get in touch with them and offer to buy it once it is baled straight from the paddock. Again, you can see what you are getting and it takes the guesswork out of what might be lurking inside the bales.

Storing hay

Having spent your precious dollars on hay, it is worth making sure your storage facilities are up to scratch so that the good hay you have doesn’t turn ugly! Ideally, the bottom layer should be off the ground - wooden pallets are great. It stops any moisture that may be in the ground being drawn up into the bales and making them mouldy.

Check your shed is waterproof - both the roof and the walls. As many sheds are constructed from corrugated iron, which has often been replaced over the years, old nail holes and gaps between the framework of the shed and the iron can let water in which can ruin your hay.

If you are satisfied the shed or storage facility is watertight let the stacking fun begin!

A note of caution

Storing hay that's not fully dry can lead to spontaneous combustion due to internal heat buildup.

To minimize this risk, store bales in a way that allows for ample air circulation. Place them on pallets and leave gaps between stacks. If a metal rod or probe stuck into the bale's center feels warm, take immediate action to prevent fire.


So there we have the good, the bad and the ugly of hay! I hope this article has been helpful in your quest for filling your hayshed and that when it comes to feeding out, it is a pleasant experience and not a nasty shock!