When it comes to grass fed beef, one major source of confusion is the role of hay. If grass fed cows should only eat grass, what’s this hay stuff? How does it fit in? Luckily, it’s easy to understand once we get our terms straight
Like the grass in grass fed beef, hay is actually a combination of grasses, as well as clover, plantain, vetch, and other pasture plants. But the important thing to understand is that hay consists of the same plants that cows graze on spring through fall. It’s entirely possible to graze cattle on a piece of ground in the spring, then to cut hay from it in the summer.
Hay is made when pasture plants are cut, laid out to dry, and then baled. Actually, back before tractors it was cut by hand with scythes, then raked into haystacks with peaked tops. The outer layer would serve as a roof, keep the interior dry through the winter.
Next came small bales of the sort you’ve possibly purchased at a farm supply store or seen pumpkins displayed on at a farmstand. They are rectangular and generally weight thirty to sixty pounds. Some small farms still use these, especially for feeding horses, but round bales and large square bales weighing anywhere from six hundred pounds to almost a ton are now more common on working farms.
Whatever form it comes in, the purpose of hay is the same. It is a way of taking vigorously growing grass and preserving it for later. There are a few lucky places in the world with such hospitable climates that grazing is possible year round, but these are rare. Everywhere else farmers need to figure out a way to save feed for later. So when winter comes and the snow flies in northern climates, or when drought and heat cause pasture to stall in the south — when grazing becomes impossible — farmers feed hay.
The one notable exception is Roundup Ready alfalfa. Alfalfa is a high protein forage crop, which makes it excellent for dairy cows in particular. But alfalfa, though a deep rooted perennial, has a tendency to weaken with repeated cuttings, and a pure stand of alfalfa will inevitably be infiltrated by grasses and other pasture plants. By spraying herbicide tolerant alfalfa with glyphosate, AKA Roundup, farmers keep the stand purely alfalfa and keep it more vigorous for longer.
The important thing to understand is that this is a niche product. It’s hardly available around here, and I do not feed it. Other than this single case, no hay that I’m aware of is ever treated with herbicides. In fact, the grasses and clovers that make up hay are some of the very plants herbicides like Roundup try to eliminate in corn and soy fields.
To summarize: hay is a dried form of exactly the same plants cows eat when grazing on pasture. It is used to feed cows through the winter or other times growing grass is not available. This is why it’s a part of the diet of virtually all grass fed beef cows.