What’s the difference between alfalfa and grass hay?

alfalfa and grass hay

When I got started with goats I barely knew the difference between hay and straw. Although I quickly learned that hay is food and straw is bedding, I just assumed that all hay was the same. That is definitely not the case. 

Alfalfa, clover, and peanut are legume hays, while timothy, oat, bermuda, and orchard are examples of grass hays. If you’re sitting there thinking that you’ve seen oat straw before, you may have! Oats can be grown for hay or oats and straw. Hay is basically a grass that is cut green, then dried and baled. When oat seeds are planted, they first grow as a grass. When it looks like grass, it can be cut and baled as hay.

Like all grasses, if oats are allowed to just keep growing, they go to seed. If a farmer wants to grow oats, they don’t cut the grass to make hay. They let it keep growing until the seed heads mature, and then they let the entire plant dry before harvesting the seeds with a combine. The dried up and dead stalks are still standing in the field, so then the farmer goes back and cuts the brown stalks and bales them as straw.

Nutrients in hay

The nutritional profiles vary greatly between the legumes and the grass hays. Alfalfa has about 16 to 20 percent protein, while grass hays are only 8 to 10 percent protein. Alfalfa has two to three times as much calcium as grass hays. 

I often hear people say they want to give their animals “the best” feed, and they assume alfalfa is best because it has more protein and calcium. But alfalfa hay is not the best for all animals. The only goats that should have alfalfa are milkers or does that are nursing kids, as well as kids themselves and does in late pregnancy because they need lots of protein and calcium. Dry adult does, bucks and wethers can wind up with zinc deficiency if they get too much alfalfa.

While milk cows should have alfalfa, beef cattle should stick with grass hay. Here’s an article from UC Davis about why horses should not have alfalfa. 

Hay nutrition can also vary from year to year depending upon weather and crop management. We’ve never had our hay tested, but someone shared five of their alfalfa tests with me. The tests covered five cuttings across three years. The protein level varied from 19 to 26%, while calcium varied from .97 to 1.31%. 

This is why I buy my hay from three different cuttings every year. I’m assuming that none of them will be perfect. Some will be higher or lower than others, so if I’m feeding three different cuttings, hopefully they will average out to be about right. And that seems to have worked well for us. I’ve also been adding Standlee alfalfa pellets to my milk goats’ grain for additional insurance ever since they started selling them in our area about ten years ago.

Regardless of whether you are buying a grass hay or a legume hay, it should be green on the inside of the bale. If it was newly baled, it should still be green on the outside, but over time, the outside of the bale will fade to brown, although it will still be green inside. 

Because weather conditions can affect the quality of hay, and most of us buy our hay locally, what do we do if the hay crop isn’t very good one year? When I can’t find enough good quality green hay, I supplement my goats, sheep, and pigs with hay pellets. Standlee Forage makes hay pellets with alfalfa, timothy, and oat grass. A few months ago I wrote about the differences between baled hay, hay cubes, and hay pellets.

 

alfalfa and grass hay

43 thoughts on “What’s the difference between alfalfa and grass hay?”

    • Thanks for the info! I’m a total newbie & am trying to prepare myself as best as I can before we get our first (does for milking) next year.

      Reply
      • For my does in milk and kids: Standlee Timothy grass compressed bale hay. On the milk stand or once a day if not being milked: organic alfalfa pellets mixed with Timothy pellets then add calfmana, goat balance, and black oil sunflower seeds (coconut oil add in winter). No sweet feed or additional gain added ever. Protein pale and goat block in the pasture. And of course underbrush and grass/weed forage. Very healthy, happy, beautiful, spoiled goats.
        Bucks get Timothy hay, and forage. No sweet feed or grain ever.

        Reply
      • It’s not a good idea to simply follow someone else’s feeding plan like you would a cake recipe. Every farm is different, which is why I always explain the WHY between the WHAT in my articles. For example, Grandma-T feeds Calf Manna, which sounds like it’s working for her, but that is normally only used to fatten up calves for butchering or giving to a goat that is extremely underweight, and you’ve already done a full health check to be sure that it doesn’t have a medical problem that’s causing the low weight. Calf Manna is extremely high in protein, which is tough on goats. I also don’t recommend protein pails or mineral blocks. Here is more on goat minerals:
        https://thriftyhomesteader.com/goat-minerals/

        Reply
  1. Great post! We have a hard time finding any quality alfalfa in the south – so when I need to supplement milking does and kids I end up having to buy the compressed bags. I remember when I first started and was using hay for bedding….didn’t realize how much warmer straw was, and how much cheaper! LOL.

    Reply
  2. We are new to both goats and sheep and are learning quickly what they will eat or not. They prefer grass hay with a little alfalfa

    Reply
    • Four months is good but three months would be better. That means that if you’re milking your does for the first three months of pregnancy, they are just always eating alfalfa from pregnancy through milking.

      Reply
  3. I use grass hay but sometimes it is stemmy and my goats leave a lot. I would love to try the hay forage!

    Reply
  4. I mostly give my goats grass hay, as that is what I have available. But I do occasionally buy the pelleted alfalfa hay from Standlee. A free bag would be great!
    Thank you Deborah for a great blog and online courses about goats!

    Reply
  5. Hi Deborah,

    Thank you for this article on alfalfa and grass hay. I’m currently waiting for my goat kids to arrive but when that do I’ll know exactly what to feed them thanks to you.
    I tried to enter the giveaway but I don’t have Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest so I guess I cannot. That’s a shame.

    Thanks again,
    Maranda

    Reply
    • Leaving a comment is one way to enter the giveaway. I hope you clicked on the “leave a blog comment” button in the box above because you already left a comment. 🙂 Also, if you subscribe to my newsletter (or are already subscribed), you can get another entry for that.

      Reply
  6. All my goats used to get alfalfa, until I took your Goats 101 course (which I highly recommend!). I have now transitioned them to bermuda grass, which is the only grass hay available in my area, and Standlee timothy grass pellets. It was a hard sell at first, but now they love it. Thank you for this article!

    Reply
  7. Thank you for this post. I’ve always had a hard time discriminating between hay types. Thankfully, I did as you mentioned and fed my milking does their choice of alfalfa and grass hay. They always went for the alfalfa. I think it’s an effective way to get them back into shape after a birth too.

    Reply
  8. I can’t believe I didn’t know about possible zinc deficiencies in my dry does and wethers if they get alfalfa hay. I’ve been feeding everyone mostly alfalfa for five years!! Thanks. It’s going to be hard because they all eat out of the same feeder, but I’ll figure it out.
    Meg

    Reply
  9. Alfalfa was recommended for a friend’s anemic goat (treating for barber pole too) :(. If so, do you recommend the pellets or the hay, as we can get Standlee either, but no local alfalfa hay that we can find. thanks!

    Reply
    • Hay is preferable to pellets because the long stem forage makes them chew more, which helps to keep the rumen in balance.

      Reply
    • If goat kids are underweight, the answer is not grain. If they are under two months old, they probably need more milk. They may also be having a challenge with coccidiosis or worms. Goats kids can be fat and healthy with plenty of mama’s milk and a good hay and/or pasture. If you give me more details on age and what they’re eating, I can help you trouble shoot.

      Reply
  10. I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of our to goats and find your article helpful. Someone else left a comment about a class you offer, how do I sign up? I need all the help I can get.

    Reply
  11. we live in rural NE OK. I see what people cut for what they call hay. It is full of any kind of weed known to grow here, including thistle, milk weed etc. We buy our hay at a Tractor Supply and are ver happy with it, but it isn’t cheap.. This time Galen wants to buy round bales for fall and winter and I am afraid it will just be all junk. If junk is ok for the goats then that is fine, just checking if it would be fine. If I had a horse I wouldn’t buy it. Goats eat differnt forage than horses?

    Reply
    • Round bales can hide a lot, so you would really need to talk to the person who baled it. If they say something like, “it’s good enough for goats,” then it is NOT. They’re one of those people who think goats can eat “anything.” Only buy round bales that have been stored inside. Otherwise there is probably mold growing in them, which can kill goats. Goats do eat a lot of different forage than horses, and they are not as picky in terms of species of plants, but they do have a rumen that can be upset fairly easily if there is mold in hay.

      Reply
  12. We were feeding good quality 70% grass, 30% alfalfa hay and supplementing our milkers with Stadlee alfalfa pellets in their grain. Our supplier ran out of hay so we had to buy second cutting alfalfa. Now our buck is losing patches of hair, I believe from zinc deficiency from alfalfa. What would you suggest I supplement him with for the zinc deficiency? This has only happened after he’s been on alfalfa for two months. We are getting a load of grass hay tonight so hopefully he will start growing his hair back, but in the meantime I wonder if he needs a supplement?

    Reply
  13. I feed Standlee’s Timothy grass pellets to my buck and alfalfa and alfalfa/timothy pellets to my pregnant does. Is it normal for them to love one bag, but then barely tolerate the next?

    Reply
  14. Thanks for sharing that alfalfa is not the best hay for animals. I need to get some pasture seeds for the animals I want to raise. I’ll see what I can do about getting the right type of hay for them.

    Reply
  15. Alfalfa hay is a deep-rooted perennial forage crop which is obtained from the Alfalfa plant and also known as Lucerne and Medicago Sativa. It is an excellent source of good quality protein, fiber, and mineral and is more palatable than grass hays. Increasing demand for dairy and meat products coupled with the changing poultry farm practices is primarily driving the market growth. See More @ https://www.valuemarketresearch.com/report/alfalfa-hay-market

    Reply
  16. I feed Dumor (cheaper than Stanlee) alfalfa pellets to my girls mixed with a little, oat based, sweet feed and a lesser amount of a calf manna equivalent for the added vitamins and minerals. They also have access to as much browse as they can get and grass hay. My boys get a very small amount of the vit./min. supplement and oat based sweet feed. That is only so they are “bucket trained” which makes it easier to separate them when needed. The girls get fed twice/day since they are bred, and the boys get fed once/day and have a full hay feeder when they aren’t out with the girls. IF I am able to find some alfalfa hay this year (would be cheaper than the pellets), then I would only use the pellets when the dairy goat is being milked. I raise mainly meat goats so the less I can get away with in the way of commercial feed, the better.
    Oh, and as a long time horse owner, I totally agree with you about not giving alfalfa to horses. Even though it is mostly done out west.

    Reply
    • Sweet feed is basically candy as its mostly carbs with very little protein and no added nutrients. A grain-based “goat feed” is best for does in milk as it has protein of about 16% like alfalfa. Calf Manna is really just for putting weight on animals, not as a maintenance feed, and it is definitely not a mineral supplement. Bucks do not need any grain at all, and you don’t need to give it to them every day to keep them running towards you when they know you have grain. They won’t forget what grain is! You didn’t mention a free-choice loose GOAT mineral, but that’s the ideal way to give goats supplemental minerals, especially bucks.

      Reply

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