Oats: hay quality for export and domestic markets

Page last updated: Thursday, 5 October 2017 - 2:02pm

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The oaten hay market in Western Australia has developed significantly in recent years. There is an increased focus on the quality of hay for the export market and as a result interest in quality for the domestic market has also grown.

The oaten hay market in Western Australia has developed significantly in recent years, Japan being the major purchaser with Korea,Taiwan, the Pacific and Middle East also procuring from WA.

The Japanese market is increasingly demanding high quality hay, particularly as Australian hay exporters work with Japanese buyers to show them why they should purchase our forage versus material produced in other countries. As a result of this focus the interest in quality from the domestic market has also grown. The quality demand for the domestic market, however, does vary more from year to year depending on the availability of home produced forage and other feeds.

Before growing oats for export hay, talk to your hay processor. Hay processors have different requirements which will affect how you manage your crop. Your processor can advise you about the production of export hay.


Many export hay companies have preferred varieties they will receive whilst others have no preference. Check with you hay processor prior to planting for their list of preferred varieties. Often they will recommend growing an oat variety suited to your region and ensure the cutting time is correct.

Many common grain varieties (such as Carrolup, Wandering and Winjardi) are grown successfully as export hay. The National Oat Breeding Program has released hay varieties (Wintaroo and Brusher) with potential for some regions of Western Australia. Older varieties such as Massif, Swan and Vasse are not widely accepted by hay processors as the stems tend to be too thick.

When to cut hay

The optimum cutting time recommended by most processors is at the watery-ripe stage, Zadok stage 71 (Z71), or earlier. When the top florets are squeezed at this stage, a clear watery liquid appears. Trials have shown that hay quality decreases rapidly from this stage while the yield increases. If the liquid is white, then the optimum stage of cutting has already occurred.

It is important however, to consider delaying cutting if a significant rain event (12mm or more) is forecast. Quality of hay is most at risk when exposed to rain events between cutting and baling, resulting in leaching of colour and nutritive value.

For information on when to cut hay, refer to Oats: hay production.

For a desciption of the Zadoks growth scale, refer to Zadoks growth scale.

Quality parameters

Good colour and aroma, sweet taste and fine texture are of major importance to Japanese buyers. Hay processing companies in WA also grade based on nutritional value. The number of grades and even grading systems differ between hay processors. Some companies have five grades, others have four and some grade based on a 100 points system. The emphasis on particular parameters is also different between processors and is subject to change depending on the season. Contact your hay processor when planning your program to determine whether their requirements suit you.

Interest in oat hay for the dairy, feedlot and horse industries has increased in recent years due to the improvements in hay quality standards brought about by demand from the export market. In most cases Grade 2 hay will be sold by exporters to the domestic market, however annual quality requirements will depend on the price of alternative product used in livestock rations. In many cases the domestic market is loyal to suppliers who continually supply the right product throughout the year and can deliver on time.

Neutral detergent fibre and acid detergent fibre

Neutral detergent fibre represents the cell wall contents of the plant material and is made up of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Acid detergent fibre measures the indigestible fibre in the plant and is made up of cellulose and lignin. Fibre is essential for good rumen function and health. Animals are able to digest hemicellulose and accessable components of the cellulose, but not lignin.

Water soluble carbohydrate

Water soluble carbohydrate (WSC) is a measure of plant sugars and is used as a guide to palatability. The sugars are an important source of energy to the animal but they are not the only plant component that affects the acceptance of hay.

Digestible dry matter

Digestible dry matter (DDM) is the difference between the dry matter consumed and that excreted in faeces expressed as a percent of the dry matter consumed. DDM is generally measured by an in vitro laboratory procedure calibrated against feedstuff of known DDM values determined from feeding trials with live animals, usually sheep.

Annual ryegrass toxicity

Annual ryegrass toxicity (ARGT) risk must be minimised in export hay. All export hay must be subjected to a compulsory sampling and testing protocol designed to ensure that there is a minimum risk of it being contaminated by the bacterium that causes ARGT. Livestock deaths caused by ARGT poisoning from Australian hay or straw exports in an importing country could devastate the Australian hay and straw export industry.

If contamination by the bacterium is a potential problem, look to implement an ARGT management program through the introduction of twist fungus or Safeguard ryegrass.


Export hay requires a nil presence of toxic plants and double gees. Most processors have a limit of 1% of broad leaf plants and 5% of other cereals/rye grass/wild oats.

Foreign material

There is a zero tolerance of foreign material including dirt, stones, sticks, insects, wool, wire and carcases in export hay. Paddock management requires contaminants to be removed prior to planting.


A maximum of 10% affected leaves is allowed by most processors. Also check withholding periods on labels of all fungicides being considered for use. Do not apply fungicide if the likely cutting date is within a withholding period. For best control, plant disease resistant varieties.

For variety disease resistance information refer to Oats: choosing a variety.

Chemical residue

Export markets (particularly Japan) expect a clean and green product from Australia and thus limited use of chemicals. In 2006 Japan introduced regulations to enforce the safety of imported animal feeds which included the establishment of maximum residue limits (MRLs) for 60 chemicals in feeds including hay and grains such as wheat, barley and oats.

Speak to you exporter about their requirements for documenting chemical use and consider incorporating an integrated pest management approach.


The desired nitrate level in hay is <500mg/kg. Under infrequently experienced conditions oat plants, like other cereals, can accumulate much greater quantities of nitrates than this, and these are conserved in the process of hay making. In these situations the hay may be toxic, and in some cases the toxic potential can be enhanced if the hay is dampened by rain.


Exporters may require hay to be stored on farm until there is room at the plant. Export hay must be stored so that it is protected from sunlight, rain and wind. The floor of the shed should be concrete, bitumen or covered with heavy duty plastic to prevent moisture rising into the bales. A bonus is often paid to growers who are able to store export hay on farm. Domestic hay will also benefit from being stored under the same criteria as export hay.

Difference between quality for export and domestic use

Export hay currently has a strong emphasis on WSC, particularly for the Japanese market. This is mainly driven by the Japanese buyers who physically taste the hay and use this concept to sell the hay to dairy farmers. The reasoning is that hay, which is high in WSC is usually high in DDM and low in fibre and therefore more palatable, resulting in higher intake and higher production. Hay exported to Japan must also be of excellent green colour, texture, smell and taste. These characteristics are also generally sought by the domestic market, however there appears to be little evidence that animals prefer hay due to its colour but aroma has been found to have an influence for some animals.

Domestic hay quality has an emphasis on nutritional value, particularly crude protein and metabolisable energy (the amount of energy per kilogram of dry matter (MJ/kg)). The desired level for crude protein is >8% and metabolisable energy is >9MJ/kg dry matter.

Sampling hay for quality testing

When taking a sample for testing it is important to get a representative sample by using a suitable coring device. This method of sampling will take into account the variation within and between bales in the batch and help to ensure that the relative proportions of leaf, stem and spike are represented in the sample.

Mix the core samples from a number of bales to give a composite core sample and then take a representative sub-sample from this composite core sample for analysis.

Samples can be tested by an accredited laboratory. Hay processors will test hay (visual and feed test) as part of their quality assessment.

Should ARGT be a risk then the standard sampling procedure for export hay from the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) and Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) should be used. DAFF and AQIS have provided a standard protocol for minimising the risk of corynetoxin contamination of hay and straw for export. The standard protocol outlines the methods to sample and test for the presence of corynetoxin in hay and straw exports to prevent the hay and straw causing ARGT in livestock. The standard protocol is used by all Australian hay and straw producers and exporters who prepare hay or straw for overseas' markets. You export hay processor will use this sampling method to carry out feed tests as well as visual assessments as part of their quality assessment.

More information on sampling hay for domestic or export sale, codes of practice for selling hay, vendor declaration forms providing the buyer with relevant quality issues for hay purchased and protocols for quality testing of hay can be obtained by visiting the Australian Fodder Industry Association website.


This information has been adapted from a Farmnote produced by Kellie Winfield, Blakely Paynter and Raj Malik with input from a number of industry specialists.

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