Cut early for high-quality hay

Paul Westfall, County Extension Director, Granville Coounty
Jun. 02, 2014 @ 10:20 AM

May and June are the two months when most of the hay is cut and stored for use during the following winter as feed for cows, goats, sheep and horses. Of course, like everything else associated with farming, harvesting high quality hay is not an exact science. It is more like gambling since there are many factors beyond the farmer’s control.

To get the highest quality hay, even from fescue, the earlier it can be cut, the higher the protein and total digestible nutrients will be. For cool season grass hay, like our beloved fescue, that means cutting when the seed head is just emerging from the “boot“ of the plant. For fescue and orchardgrass, that means we should have the equipment ready to go by May 1 so hay harvest can begin by mid-May.

Now, if folks have noticed, there was not much hay cut in early May. More was cut during the last half of May, but the majority of hay fields usually don’t see the hay machinery move through until June. There are lots of reasons people are not able to get hay in during early May. The most common and compelling reason is that we have had frequent rainfall events during May.

It usually takes two to three days of drying or curing time to get hay dry enough to bale and store. Bale moisture levels need to be below 22 percent, with 15 to 18 percent moisture being more desirable. With rain showers coming through the area on a two- to three-day schedule, it is hard to get a drying window long enough to allow for proper drying.

Hay that gets rained on loses nutrients and takes even longer to dry enough to bale. Extended periods of moisture on the grass leaf and stalk can lead to mold development, lowering the quality and value of the hay even more. Basically, when a farmer decides to cut hay, he/she is betting that the hay will be baled and stored before the next rainfall event.

June tends to have less rainfall than May, so many farmers like to wait until then to start their hay season. However, during that time, the grass seed heads have been out waving in the breeze for a couple of weeks. The appearance of seed heads indicates that the plant is getting near to maturity, and the grass changes physiologically. More undigestible fibers are formed, replacing some of the starches and sugars that were present earlier in the season. Protein levels start declining as the plant matures. Hay that might have been 14% protein in mid-May will gradually lose protein. By the end of June, the protein level will likely be a lot closer to 7% than any higher number. Fortunately, most ruminants around here don’t need the highest levels of protein, so farmers can afford to wait a bit longer to cut hay and still get an acceptable product. However, waiting too late can result in a low quality, low energy hay product that will require significant supplementation with concentrate materials like corn, soybean meal or cottonseed, which can really cut into the profit margin.

I mentioned that the hay equipment should be serviced and ready to go well before the expected first cutting date. Waiting on parts to fix the baler while hay is on the ground will likely result in that hay getting rained on. Ensuring that the equipment is serviced and in good repair helps keep the odds in the farmer’s favor and is just good business.

Farmers really have to pay attention to a lot of factors when making hay. However, when conditions are right and good quality hay can be made, it is a lot easier to get animals through the winter months without a lot of extras.