Hay making tips for this year

Friday, March 17, 2017
Berlin area cattleman James Wilson gathers hay field topsoil for nutrient and pH testing in preparation for the 2017 growing season.
Photo by Jay Langston

Even if you are not a farmer, you have noticed that the grass is growing taller, and what wonders have we seen the daffodils blooming so early this year. Late winter weather has thus far provided plentiful rain and warmer temperatures. If the weather keeps this up, some of us will be making our first cut of hay in a couple of months. However, let me remind you that there are first things first and pointers you need to remember.

First, if you have not done so already, a soil test probably needs to be conducted on your hayfields. A good reason to soil test this year is that the drought last year has really smacked our pastures and hayfields in the mouth. They need a little help recovering this spring.

In addition to commercial fertilizer, I would encourage you to consider other sources of nutrients, such as poultry litter or incorporating legumes into your fields. As an example, applying one pound of nitrogen (N) up to 50 lb N/acre is going to give us an efficiency of about 30 pounds of additional forage per pound of nitrogen. In addition to more forage, crude protein may be improved as well. If legumes make up more than 25 percent of the stand, you should not have to apply N. Donít forget the phosphorous, potassium, and lime requirements of your hay crop. Also, now is the time to determine your weed control needs.

Second, get your haying equipment ready now. Donít wait until right before you get ready to cut hay. Our springs are notorious for thunderstorms popping up every 3-4 days and we want to be ready to go when the weather is clear. Also donít get caught working on equipment when hay is already sitting on the ground and getting rained on. Check your belts, sharpen blades, and lubricate as needed.

After you have properly fertilized, controlled weeds, and your equipment is in good working order, now it is time to consider the most important element in hay making; stage of harvest. No other decision in hay production influences the quality and yield of your hay. Often we as hay producers harvest hay too late. Sure, we will get more bales by harvesting later but quality will be low. When hay quality is poor, intake is low, animal performance declines, and waste increases.

One Tennessee study showed that heifer gains were reduced by 70 percent by feeding tall fescue hay that was cut in the seed forming stage compared to late boot stage. Another element that is often overlooked, particularly with cool-season grasses such as tall fescue and orchard grass, is taking a hay cutting late reduces the chances of a second cutting. Proper stage of harvest for tall fescue and orchardgrass would be in the boot stage (prior to seedhead development and for bermuda grass at 15 to 18 inches and every four to five weeks during the growing season.

If we have legumes, such as alfalfa or red clover, in our hayfields, harvest according to the legume at bud to early bloom.

Hay should be cut after the dew has dried off. Afternoon is the best time to cut hay as this is the time of day that carbohydrates are the highest in the forage. Attempt to mow hay as evenly as possible. Allow hay to remain in a swath until moisture is around 45-55 percent moisture, then rake. This is particularly important for legumes as leaf shatter and loss can be greater when moisture contents are below this level. Rake in the same direction that you mowed.

When baling hay, you should bale in the same direction as you mowed and raked. Hay should be dried down to below 18% moisture before baling. When baling, losses can be 3-8 percent for square balers and 5-15 percent for large round balers. Baling should progress at a slow enough speed that forage will be cleanly and evenly fed into the baler. This will also aid in keeping the size, density, and shape of bales consistent and helps with storage and handling.

Now that you have done all of the work mowing, raking, and baling; be sure to protect your hay. Try to put hay in proper storage such as a barn or under tarps. Donít leave it the field or under the trees. It has been shown that hay losses can be as high as 30 percent when hay is stored on the ground compared to less than 5 percent when stored in a hay barn. Think about that now. If you lost 30 percent of the hay due being stored outside, you have lost 30 percent of the fertilizer that went into that bale. Additionally, livestock may refuse up to 60-70 percent of the hay that was stored outside.

In closing, harvest hay in the correct stage of growth, minimize hay losses, and provide good storage for your hay.