Alfalfa vs. Grass Hay Nutrition: Answering Top Forage FAQs

Wellness : Health

Wellness : Nutrition

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Purina Animal Nutrition

High-quality alfalfa hay is the “holy grail” of forages – with high protein levels and digestible energy, it’s great for boosting performance in your flock or herd. But, quality comes with a price. With prices rising across the board, you might be asking, “is feeding alfalfa worth it?”

Determining the right forage strategy relies on many factors, including availability, input cost, farm goals and more. To make the decision easier, I’ve answered some of the most frequently asked questions regarding forages:

What’s the difference between alfalfa and grass hay? 

The main difference between grasses, like Bermudagrass, orchardgrass or fescue, and legumes, like alfalfa hay, is protein content. Quality alfalfa hay can have more than 50% higher protein levels than grass hay. Alfalfa also contains more calcium and total digestible nutrients (TDNs) compared to grass hays.

On the other hand, grass hays are equivalent to legumes in energy level and are a good filler feed, especially when the grass is cut early and is more tender to encourage intake. Grass hay also has the advantage during breeding season because phytoestrogen in alfalfa hay can negatively impact fertility in ewes or does.

When should I feed sheep and goats alfalfa hay? 

One of the most common questions I hear is, “do I need to feed alfalfa year-round?” The answer is no. I love alfalfa, but there are times of the year that are more important to feed it than others.

The best time to feed sheep and goats high-quality alfalfa is during lactation. The high protein content in alfalfa hay supports quality milk production to give lambs and kids a quicker start and help ewes and does bounce back faster after lambing and kidding.

Gestation is another critical time to feed ewes and does more protein. In late summer, fall and throughout winter, pasture quality is degraded with less moisture, reduced protein levels and generally tough, low-quality grass. Feeding alfalfa during times of low pasture quality helps keep females in acceptable body condition, supporting fetal development and thriftier lambs and kids born in the spring.

Feeding forages with lower protein levels (between 12-14%) is recommended after lactation and before breeding to save on supplemental forage costs when pasture quality is at its peak.

What is the cost difference between alfalfa and grass hay?

Protein is the most expensive nutrient for your flock or herd. In most cases, alfalfa will have a higher input cost compared to grass hay. But, determining the best feed strategy isn’t as simple as reducing your hay cost.

First, start with setting goals. Are you focused on improving return on investment with more animals on the ground or more pounds at weaning? If your goal is to maximize production, feeding higher protein levels is the way to go.

If your goal is to reduce input costs, feeding grass hay may be the right strategy for you. Remember, forage isn’t the only way to provide protein to your animals. Supplementing lower-quality hay with a protein tub could give you the same results as feeding a more expensive alfalfa hay.

Sometimes, you have no choice in what to feed based on what forage is available. For example, in times of drought, you might not have an abundance of high-quality hay available. You may be feeding lower-quality alfalfa or possibly using year-old or older stored hay with the protein leached out. In those situations, you may need to provide additional supplementation to make up for what’s lacking.

Bonus recommendation: Forage analysis

Understanding your forages' protein and energy levels is essential for ensuring your animals receive the nutrition they need to be productive without wasting dollars on over-supplementation. A forage analysis is a low upfront investment that yields high value for your bottom line.

Once you receive your forage analysis results, consult with your local nutritionist to interpret the data and build a supplementation plan to fill any nutrition gaps in your forages. A tailored supplementation program complements your forages and is customized to each production stage.

When interpreting forage analysis results, many producers focus on protein, but be sure to evaluate both protein and energy. The protein content of your hay is important, but if you don’t have enough energy in the diet to utilize the protein effectively, you can waste protein or have energy deficiencies in your flock or herd. If your forage lacks energy, work with your nutritionist to build a ration accordingly. Corn is a common energy source, but as ruminants, sheep and goats can utilize many different feedstuffs. Look for what’s local and cost-effective.

Choosing the best forage strategy for your flock or herd isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Balance cost, farm goals and availability to do what’s right for you and your animals. Contact your local Purina® dealer to learn more.