“Hay” refers to any crop that is cut and dried for livestock feed. A variety of plants, including alfalfa and other legumes, grains, grasses, or a mixture of these. While hay can be irrigated or dryland, grass hays and native-plant hays are often dryland. Hay is harvested just before the plants mature—when the leaves are at their fullest. First the hay is swathed and left in long windrows to dry. If the crop is very thick or the weather is wet, the rows might be turned over at least once to ensure that all of the cut hay is dried. Then the hay is collected into large round or square bales (weighing as much as 2,000 pounds apiece) or small square bales (weighing around 70 pounds apiece).


Hay is primarily used as livestock feed when animals cannot forage for themselves. In Montana, cows are typically fed hay from November to April, when snow covers the ground. Animals (especially horses) that live year-round in barns or pens are fed hay throughout the year. A cow will eat 2% of her bodyweight each day, and a horse will eat up to 3%. Many ranchers in Montana produce enough hay to feed their own animals, as well as excess hay to sell.

Central Montana Hay

Growing Season

Depending on the crop and the weather, hay harvest usually begins around the end of June. Irrigated hay fields might be able to produce as many as 3 cuttings (3 separate harvests) each summer. Dryland hay is typically only harvested once. Often ranchers will use dryland hayfields as fall or winter pasture for livestock.


256,000 tons in Cascade, Chouteau, and Judith Basin Counties. 5.46 million tons in Montana

Did You Know?

  • Montana is the 7th largest producer of hay in the United States.
  • Montana produces roughly 4% of the nation’s hay.
  • “Hay” and “Straw” are not the same. Hay is formed of the whole plant that has been cut and dried and is used for feed. Straw is formed by harvesting the stalks of cereal crops (like wheat, barley, and oats) after the seed heads have been harvested, and is used for bedding.