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Commonly used plants for hay include mixtures of grasses such as ryegrass (Lolium species), timothy, brome, fescue, Bermuda grass, orchard grass, and other species, depending on region. Hay may also include legumes, such as alfalfa (lucerne) and clovers (red, white and subterranean). Legumes in hay are ideally cut pre-bloom. Other pasture forbs are also sometimes a part of the mix, though these plants are not necessarily desired as certain forbs are toxic to some animals.
Oat, barley, and wheat plant materials are occasionally cut green and made into hay for animal fodder, and more usually used in the form of straw, a harvest byproduct of stems and dead leaves that are baled after the grain has been harvested and threshed. Straw is used mainly for animal bedding. Although straw is also used as fodder, particularly as a source of dietary fiber, it has lower nutritional value than hay.
It is the leaf and seed material in the hay that determines its quality, because they contain more of the nutrition value for the animal than the stems do.: 194 Farmers try to harvest hay at the point when the seed heads are not quite ripe and the leaf is at its maximum when the grass is mowed in the field. The cut material is allowed to dry so that the bulk of the moisture is removed but the leafy material is still robust enough to be picked up from the ground by machinery and processed into storage in bales, stacks or pits. Methods of haymaking thus aim to minimize the shattering and falling away of the leaves during handling.
Hay is very sensitive to weather conditions, especially when it is harvested. In drought conditions, both seed and leaf production are stunted, making hay that has a high ratio of dry coarse stems that have very low nutritional values. If the weather is too wet, the cut hay may spoil in the field before it can be baled. Thus, the biggest challenge and risk for farmers in producing hay crops is the weather, especially the weather of the particular few weeks when the plants are at the best age or maturity for hay. A lucky break in the weather often moves the haymaking tasks (such as mowing, tedding, and baling) to the top priority on the farm’s to-do list. This is reflected in the idiom to make hay while the sun shines. Hay that was too wet at cutting may develop rot and mold after being baled, creating the potential for toxins to form in the feed, which could make the animals sick.
After harvest, hay also has to be stored in a manner to prevent it from getting wet. Mold and spoilage reduce nutritional value and may cause illness in animals. A symbiotic fungus in fescue may cause illness in horses and cattle.
Hay or grass is the foundation of the diet for all grazing animals, and can provide as much as 100% of the fodder required for an animal. Hay is usually fed to an animal during times when winter, drought, or other conditions make pasture unavailable. Animals that can eat hay vary in the types of grasses suitable for consumption, the ways they consume hay, and how they digest it. Therefore, different types of animals require hay that consists of similar plants to what they would eat while grazing, and, likewise, plants that are toxic to an animal in pasture are generally also toxic if they are dried into hay.
Most animals are fed hay in two daily feedings, morning and evening, more for the convenience of humans, as most grazing animals on pasture naturally consume fodder in multiple feedings throughout the day. Some animals, especially those being raised for meat, may be given enough hay that they simply are able to eat all day. Other animals, especially those that are ridden or driven as working animals may be given a more limited amount of hay to prevent them from getting too fat. The proper amount of hay and the type of hay required varies somewhat between different species. Some animals are also fed concentrated feeds such as grain or vitamin supplements in addition to hay. In most cases, hay or pasture forage must make up 50% or more of the diet by weight.