Heidi M Sands looks at the options of buying in hay at a challenging time.

2018 has been a difficult year for hay; a long preceding winter, wet spring and dry summer means that in some areas of the UK hay is in short supply. From my own perspective our grass simply didn’t grow and from a field that has in the past yielded more than 90 big round bales, this year we got 22. That necessitated a re-think of just how we’d feed our livestock over the coming months and for the first time in over 25 years we actually bought hay in.


Buying hay in rather than making your own can have its risks. You will obviously only want to buy good, clean, sweet smelling hay; any that is rank, dusty or damp will not keep well nor be palatable. Damp hay can also sweat in the barn, spontaneously combust and catch fire. No-one wants that for not only will you have nothing to feed to your animals, you’ll also risk fire spreading to other outbuildings and the ensuing damage a farm fire can cause.

Always try to inspect any hay you are considering buying, not only should it smell good it should be free of weed including docks and rushes. It should also be clear of ragwort that if fed in hay to horses in particular, can be more palatable than in its growing state. Ragwort causes liver damage in equines and can lead to death. It’s difficult to spot in hay so if possible inspect standing grass before it is cut and reject any that contains the nasty yellow headed weed.

Don’t be afraid to pull a handful of hay from the centre of any bale you are considering, smell it and reject any that smells fusty. If you want to take things a stage further, sugars in hay can be tested and analysed by feed companies that specialise in this aspect.

Check the price of hay locally. If you are having it delivered then don’t forget to add in something for delivery but ensure that you are paying the going rate. Remember that hay is a valuable commodity that must be stored properly and kept dry. Hay that is allowed to get wet will ultimately rot and go black. Ensure that the building you keep your hay in is wind and watertight. Winter storms can blow both rain and snow in through the smallest of gaps making hay stocks damp. Don’t be tempted to store hay outside. Even if you put it on pallets and cover it well it will get wet. If you don’t have clean, dry storage then consider renting a building in which to keep it.

Only buy what you’ll need and if you have limited storage space consider getting hay in batches. An agreement with a local farmer or merchant made at the beginning of the season can make all the difference between having enough to see you through the winter and running out.

Reducing wastage of hay is paramount. All manner of livestock can be wasteful and any hay that is dropped on the floor is likely to be trodden underfoot and will not get eaten. Hay that has been on the floor but still looks reasonably clean is likely to be unpalatable and tainted, it’s seldom worth picking it up and using it as feedstuff, but if it’s still dry it could be utilised as bedding.


Consider using hayracks to reduce soiling and wastage. Those that are best have purpose built trays underneath to catch any hay that drops. These are useful for feeding sheep and goats in particular. Tubs in the form of half barrels are also useful for feeding hay and keeping it off the floor especially if feeding livestock outdoors. Tubs can be tied to fence posts for extra security by using bungees attached through holes bored in the sides of the tubs. Securing the tubs in this way can prevent livestock from tipping the tub and its contents on the floor.

If you are feeding hay out of haynets then consider double netting or using haynets with small holes. This will make it harder for hay to be pulled from the nets in large quantities; smaller mouthfuls are more likely to be eaten rather than dropped. Netting can also be done to big round bales that are fed whole, to reduce wastage. Big bales are better fed in feeders than directly on the ground and those feeders with built in lids or that are enclosed, with access holes located around the sides, make wastage less likely.

If it becomes difficult to locate or buy good hay then consider alternatives. In some cases good clean straw can be added to hay to help bulk it out. Straw may not be suitable for feeding to all livestock, in particular lactating animals and in this case it might be worth considering feed blocks. These are available in different kinds depending on the type of livestock you are feeding; ask your local feed merchant for advice and suitability.


If we are lucky enough to have a dry winter and you have access to extensive grazing such as an area of hill or dry arable land then it might be possible to make good use of dry grazing for an extended period of time. This sort of winter feeding is generally suitable for hill cows and sheep. These animals have evolved to make good use of low grade rough grazing including rushes. Although this type of grazing may be low in nutrients it can form part of the fibre ration for animals such as Highland cattle. On the Scottish islands sheep in particular will often take themselves down to the shore to browse on seaweeds when all else fails. Making good use of what nature provides can mean the difference between surviving or not, don’t overlook its usefulness.


This article was written exclusively for Smallholder magazine by Hedid M Sands. For more of her livestock expertise, subscribe to the monthly magazine by calling 01778 392011 or emailing subscriptions@warnersgroup.co.uk. It is also available from newsagents.