Feeding Hay To Livestock {Which Hay Is Best For What Animal?}

How do you choose which hay to feed your livestock? There are lots of opinions out there on this subject. And lots of hay to choose from too. And one type of hay may not work for each animal, or it may not be the best choice for the stage of life they’re in. Pregnancy and lactation, for example, will definitely affect the hay you need to feed. Let’s cover this topic in some detail and figure out the best hay to feed your animals. Whether you have sheep, goats, a family dairy cow, meat cattle, or rabbits.

Two Icelandic ewes in a long grassy pasture in autumn.
Brunhilde and Freya, two of my Icelandic ewes, enjoying the pasture while it is still green and nutritious.

In This Article

  • Defining hay, straw, and silage
  • Types of hay (first, second, or third cut)
  • Types of hay (alfalfa, grass, legumes etc.)
  • How to tell hay quality visually and spot problems
  • Questions to ask supplier when buying hay
  • Best types of hay for different livestock (cattle, sheep, goats, rabbits, etc.)
  • Best types of hay for stages of life (pregnant or lactating animals, older animals)
  • Types of bales available

Hay is broken into two primary categories: grass and legume. Grass hays have less protein than legumes. Examples of grass hay include Timothy and orchard grass.

Examples of legume hay include alfalfa and clover. It’s crucial to choose the correct hay for your animal and introduce it gradually if making a switch.

I can graze my small flock of Icelandic sheep and their lambs on one acre all summer long (see my article how many sheep per acre for a more in-depth look), but at a certain point in the autumn, I have to switch to hay.

But what hay? When we first got them I wasn’t really sure what was best.

So I dug into the research. I spoke to shepherds and veterinarians and did a bunch of reading.

There is no one answer, but there are best practices and some bad ones.

An Icelandic ewe nurses her ram lamb in her sheep shed.
Straw makes for better bedding due to its ability to soak up more moisture. It’s also very comfortable.

Difference Between Hay And Straw

Hay is grasses, legumes, or other plants that have been cut and then dried and stored for use as animal feed or fodder fodder when there is no access to pasture.

Hay is a crop that has been harvested without processing. Straw, however, is the byproduct of a grain crop that is cut after the seed head has matured and been harvested for human or animal food.

For example, oat hay is hay fed to animals while still green and before the seed heads mature. It has not been processed to remove the oats for human breakfast cereals. However, oat straw has had the oats removed from the plant, rendering the leftover stalks and leaves as straw.

Hay is highly nutritious, as it was harvested when the plant was at peak health and nutrition.

Straw is dried out, and dead stalks. Straw has little nutrition but can be used as winter roughage for certain cattle and it makes for excellent bedding and garden mulch.

What Is Silage?

Silage is to hay what pickles are to cucumbers. Silage is made by cutting grass or hay and compressing them, depleting the harvest food from oxygen. Thus, this sealed-off hay will ferment, preserving itself through acidification.

Silage is an alternative to dry storage, preserving the existing nutrients from the harvest. It is a high-energy food for cattle. However, exposure to open air will cause it to spoil rapidly.

Silage is frequently mixed with corn or other grains before feeding, especially for cattle.

Should You Feed Silage Instead of Hay?

Silage is tightly wrapped to exclude air and retains plenty of moisture. That, and the fermentation, allows it to retain a higher percentage of nutrients than hay.

Silage is also partially digested already.

Hay is more palatable however — and much more affordable and easy to buy and make.

You can choose either, and for cattle, silage might be a better choice.

Hay: What Does First, Second, & Third Cut Mean?

The first, second, and third cut refer to how many times a field has been harvested. Think of hay as a lawn and the harvest as the grass clippings. A hay crop can be mowed twice, possibly a third.

Some animals will do better on one cut than another.

Let’s discuss some general truths for each type and then the exceptions you need to be aware of when choosing the best hay to feed your animals.

First Cut Of Hay

The first cut of hay is done before it blooms. It will have thinner stems, making it easier for some animals to chew. It is also high in fiber and lower in protein and fat.

Many small animals do well on the first cut, like rabbits.

Some find it is a good cut for horses, although the protein content is lower than some owners desire. Cattle will often enjoy the first cut so long as it wasn’t harvested late in the season.

It can be coarser, and lack the leafiness many and picky eaters, especially sheep, prefer. Late season first cut can also be prone to high weed and moisture content.

Second Cut Of Hay

The second cutting of hay smells sweet and is greener thanks to more leaves and less stems. In addition, this cut will have higher amounts of protein and fat, making it popular with horses being exercised and lactating or pregnant cows.

Adult rabbits also do well on it, and goats adore it.

Third Cut Of Hay

The third cut of hay is soft and very leafy. It is lower in fiber but high in protein and fat. It is notable for its thick, green appearance. The lack of fiber makes it hard to feed animals such as rabbits. While horses can eat it, the first or second cut should be mixed in to provide fiber.

A large round bale of hay in the field.

Varieties of Hay

Hay comes in a wide variety, split between two primary categories: grass and legume. It is also baled in two main forms: small square or round.

Timothy Hay

Timothy hay is an example of a grass and is one of the more expensive choices.

It is grown in cooler climates, such as the Northeastern and upper Midwest of the US. It is known for its high energy and fiber content, with low protein. It’s perfect for helping animals feel full without adding too many calories, leading to excessive weight.


Alfalfa, also known as lucerne, is one of the most popular and nutritious legume hays. It is high in protein and high energy, and many nutrients, such as calcium, making it excellent for lactating cattle, pregnant animals, or for any homesteader or farmer willing to pay the higher cost. Animals love the taste, but some get too bloated or fat on it if it isn’t mixed in with other hays.

We feed our sheep alfalfa.

Oat Hay

Oat hay is the green plant harvested before the oat seed heads are mature, making it easier for animals to digest. In addition, it is high in fiber, protein, and fat. The latter means it is excellent if you have animals struggling to maintain weight, but you should avoid it if your animals are prone to excess pounds.


Orchardgrass is a high protein and calorie grass when compared to Timothy. It is also high in fiber and nutrition, although not necessarily as much as alfalfa. However, it has a flavor many animals appreciate. One of its advantages is that it is more flexible on when it is harvested (cut).

Types Of Hay Bales

Hay bales will come in different sizes. The weights and dimensions can differ widely and can also be different in regions and countries. Let’s take a look at the two types you’re likely going to need to decide between.

Small Square Bales

Often the best choice for homesteaders and small farms as they can be easily carried by hand. This is what we buy for our animals as it can be easily loaded and fed by an individual and it requires no special equipment to hoist and stack.

Small square bales come in different weights and sizes and they will be held together by two strings or three strings. The weight is the important thing to ask about, as the farmer can set his baler to be more loose or compressed which means the same size of small square bale may weigh completely differently — always ask for the weight of your small square bale.

They can range in weight from 50 lbs up to 100 lbs.

Pros Of Square Bales

  • Lighter – don’t need special equipment or great strength to lift them.
  • Denser
  • Less wastage – more of your hay and money is getting into the animal
  • Easy to stack – making them more managable to transport and store
  • Safer to play on if you have little ones prone to climbing them

Cons Of Square Bales

  • Requires more labor to produce
  • Absorbs more moisture, so it must be stored under a roof, or it will become moldy or rot
  • More expensive to produce, thus often more expensive to buy

Large Round Bales

Large round bales are cheaper to buy (pound for pound) and make sense for larger operations with more animals, or larger animals like cows and bison or horses.

These are massive, heavy bales that need special equipment to move and feed and there is potentially a lot of waste depending on how the bale is fed to the animals.

Storage is also an issue and many homesteaders simply don’t have the room nor the equipment.

Pros Of Round Bales

  • Require less labor to produce
  • Cheaper to produce and buy
  • Don’t spoil as easily in the rain
  • It can be easier to use when feeding a large number of animals

Cons Of Round Bales

  • They don’t stack well, making them difficult to transport
  • Take up a lot more storage space due to configuration and lack of stacking
  • Greater wastage

I’ve looked at different ways for us to get large bales and so far it just hasn’t made sense.

There is also the option of loose hay — an old-fashioned, practical way of haying that is still used in many parts. It is especially practical if you have the time and desire to create your own hay but lack the equipment or budget to bale it.

How To Tell Quality Hay Apart From Bad Hay

Hay quality varies considerably and you need to arm yourself with knowledge when you go to inspect it.

The wrong kind of weeds or mold from too much rain could harm your animals. Even excess dust can be problematic for some, causing respiratory issues.

It is vital to check a few bales before purchase. Cut them open and peer inside, as the out edges might disguise significant flaws inside.

Look for rocks, sticks, twine, and wire. These are not only harmful to animals if eaten but are adding weight to the cost while adding nothing but a hazard.

Check the color of the bales. Yellow and brown on the outside doesn’t mean the inside is the same due to sun bleaching and oxygen. But if the inner bale is dull, it is of lower value and likely old and dusty.

Give it a smell.

It should be pleasing — grassy and sweet. Sour and musty is a sign of mildew or mold. Flakes should also separate with ease. Excess clumping is often due to dust and moisture.

Alfalfa can be tested for digestibility and fiber content by bending a handful. It is harder to digest if it snaps, but the fiber is higher. If younger, it will bend without loud breakage and be easier for animals to digest.

Be wary of buying uncovered hay, especially from the top or bottom of a stack. The top and bottom bales absorb the most moisture, raising the the chances it is moldy.

Also, be wary of any bales that seem inexplicably heavier than the others, they may be waterlogged.

Lastly, keep an eye out for brown spots, discolored lumps, and excessive weeds.

Questions To Ask The Hay Supplier

Not all people are scrupulous and there are those out there who will attempt to lie about the weight of their bales or the quality and content of their hay. Ask questions and inspect everything. Even if it’s your first time, doing your research will make it less likely you will be cheated.

  • What is the weight of the bales and the cost?
  • How old is the hay?
  • What cut is the hay (first, second, or third), and how mature?
  • When was it harvested, and what was the weather like?
  • Was the hay sprayed for weeds?
  • Where has the hay been stored, and was it covered?
  • Is there a minimum order?
  • Do they deliver? If so, how much and does this change the minimum order amount?
  • Are there any other hays mixed in?
  • Is anything else being harvested soon?
A deep red shed converted into a chicken coop sits out in a pasture with blue skies and fluffy white clouds behind it
During the summer, this wooden shed is used to house meat chickens. After they’re processed in the fall, it is cleaned out, wooden pallets are put down, and it is used to store our hay safely from rain and snow. You can get a lot of small square bales in there.

How To Store Hay

Hay should be stored under cover and off the ground. You can use a tarp over and under the bales if you are only buying a few weeks’ worths at a time. Nonetheless, watch how damp the ground gets, as you don’t want your bales in standing water.

It is best to have them raised off the ground onto something like wooden pallets which are easily got for free or cheap.

If storing it for more extended periods, try to keep it out of direct sunlight. The sun accelerates the natural breakdown of nutrients.

If you get new hay in before you’ve finished the old, restack it so that the oldest stuff is used first. Remember, the older it is, the less nutrition.

When Do You Start Feeding Hay For Pastured Animals?

This depends on your season, climate, and the state of your pasture.

For the past two years we have not had to start feeding hay until November here in Southern Ontario.

Pasture changes throughout a growing season pretty drastically, with spring pastures being the most nutritious and autumn pastures being the least efficient.

What Is The Best Hay?

What is the best hay? That depends on the animal you’re feeding and whether they’re young, old, pregnant, or lactating. Alfalfa hay is the most popular, and often most nutritious, legume hay, while timothy and orchard are popular healthy grass hay choices.

Let’s answer this question animal by animal.

And as with most things, there will be a wide variety of opinions on this topic with some people disagreeing with my (farmer and veterinarian sourced) recommendations.

That’s okay. But just know that you will not go wrong with any of my recommendations either.

And remember that small homesteads can make different choices than larger ranches and commercial farms.

An Icelandic sheep ewe stands in the doorway of a red shed used for hay storage and animal housing.
Sheep are known for being extremely picky, and mine certainly live up to that.

What Is The Best Type Of Hay For Sheep?

Pregnant sheep, dairy sheep, and lactating ewes with their lambs need a high protein hay like alfalfa which is about 18%, as they (and their lambs) have a higher protein requirement than dry adult sheep or males.

We feed pure third-cut alfalfa hay all winter long as it just makes life easier.

If you have separate pens for your sheep of different stages, you can mix and choose your hays accordingly. But you can’t go wrong with alfalfa as the best hay choice. Just make sure it’s not coarse and full of stalks but rather very leafy.

Sheep do well on fine, leafy hays with high nutritional content. Prairie grass such as Timothy and orchardgrass hay are firm favorites.

Rams & Mature Wethers: grass hay is sufficient for them.

Dry Mature Ewes: a mixture of grass and alfalfa with a higher component of grass being acceptable.

Pregnant ewes: a mixture of high quality grass and legume hays or straight alfalfa.

Lactating ewes with lambs: alfalfa is best to meet the needs of lactation.

Lambs: a high-protein hay like alfalfa.

When introducing hay to pastured sheep in the late autumn, I like to do it slowly so that they do not experience any gastrointestinal upset from a sudden change in diet.

Sheep need a feeder or they will trample and waste too much hay. Do not feed them on the ground.

See Also

Goats sticking their heads through a white picket fence.

What Is The Best Type Of Hay For Goats?

Adult Bucks & Mature Wethers: Grass hays such as timothy hay, orchardgrass, and even brome and bluegrass is a fine hay for them.

Dry Mature Does: grass hays are fine maintenance hays for them too.

Pregnant Does: for the first 100 days of gestation, very little is actually happening with the fetus in terms of growth. After that time, a higher quality alfalfa hay can be mixed in or fed exclusively.

Lactating Does With Kids: Alfalfa and similar, higher energy and protein hays are best.

Kids: baby goats should be fed legume hays as well.

The best overall hay for goats is non-coarse grass hay with legume hays being mixed in or fed exclusively for certain life stages.

See Also

What Is The Best Hay For A Dairy Cow?

Dairy cows need the best hay to maintain their production of milk.

A well-fed family milk cow is one that will provide your family and her own calf with so much delicious, nutritious milk for drinking and cheese, yogurt, and kefir making.

Dairy cows do best on fine and leafy alfalfa. The hay cannot be coarse or stemmy. If alfalfa is in short supply, Timothy hay is an excellent second choice to add in.

A dairy cow needs to be allowed to eat as much as she wants and too much grass hay can negatively affect her production.

What Is The Best Type Of Hay For Beef Cattle?

Meat cows (beef cattle) are not terribly picky, although they will do best with some legume hay mixed into their diets if their grass hay is dried out and coarse.

However, if money is tight, they can do well on oat straw with a small about of alfalfa or Timothy hay mixed in. Barley straw is a good backup, and wheat straw is their least enjoyed.

What Is The Best Hay For Rabbits?

Grass hays are best for adult rabbits and Timothy is considered the most superior choice:

  • Orchardgrass
  • Meadow hay
  • Timothy Hay
  • Oat Hay
  • Bermudagrass

Baby rabbits can be given alfalfa hay and pellets between three weeks and six months. However, it should ideally be mixed with grass hays.

Kits should start being weaned off pellets and alfalfa at six months.

Will Geese Eat Hay?

YES geese will eat hay during the winter months once there is no more pasture.

That should NOT be their only source of feed and they will require grains and seeds.

We offer our geese alfalfa alongside oats and blackoil sunflower seeds.

See Also

Your Homestead Needs Geese {16 Reasons Why}

A group of geese, ducks, chickens on a green pasture

Winter Versus Summer Considerations

An animal fed exclusively on hay during the winter needs more nutrition that an animal on healthy, green pastures being fed supplemental hay.

For the winter months when there is no pasture, choose the highest quality you can that is also appropriate for the stage of life the animal is in.

For the summer months, you can get by with something less — unless your pasture is bad or you’re dealing with a drought.

We have not needed to feed additional hay in the summer months as our acre has produced amazing grasses for our sheep and geese.

Final Thoughts

Hay comes in a large variety. Pay attention to its quality and the cut, and look for the right mix of fiber, protein, and other nutrients your animals require. When storing it, keep it covered and, if possible, don’t have it sitting directly on the ground.

Choosing the best hay for your livestock doesn’t have to be complicated andhopefully this article shed some light on the subject. Feel free to add your thoughts and ask questions in the comments.

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