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Photo by Stu Yensel, Seed Consultants, Inc.

Hay takes priority at planting time

There is always a potential struggle for farmers who grow corn, soybeans and hay in the busy springtime schedule. Which takes priority, cutting hay or planting corn and soybeans?

For Louie Rehm, who grows corn, soybeans and hay and also raises beef cattle in Wayne County, the high value of the crop resulting from a market left hungry from a late spring and last year’s drought makes hay the clear winner in the spring. In addition, the cool temperatures and soggy spring in northeast Ohio clearly point to prioritizing hay.

“The hay is ready to cut. Hay is the priority. We’ll get the hay off and then work through the corn. It may not be fit to plant corn anyway,” he said.

The hay/corn planting decision can play out differently every year. Hay is an even higher priority for Mark Thomas, a dairy farmer in Stark County, whose crop production revolves around hay and silage for his cattle.  Last year on April 23, planting was off to an early start in Ohio, but Thomas was watching neighboring planters roll while he focused on hay. Here is an excerpt from his 2012 April 23 Between the Rows report.

“There is every emotion going on right now. I told myself that I should wait to plant until after we make first cutting hay. But I keep thinking, ‘I want to plant, I want to plant.’ But then the other sides of me thinks, ‘I don’t want to re-plant, I don’t want to replant,’” Thomas said.

As it turned out, Thomas was one of the very last farmers in the area (and maybe the state) to plant his corn last year. As a result, the crop’s pollination missed the worst of the heat and benefitted greatly from some critical late rains last year for one of the best corn crops Thomas has ever had. Corn that was planted earlier did not fare so well.

As everything is running a bit behind schedule this year, John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator, pointed out that timing is crucial for maximizing hay production —another reason it is prioritized in the spring.

“Hay making can be a delicate art of balancing quality and quantity. We certainly want to achieve high yields from every acre we harvest, but the forage plant itself gives us the best indication as to when to harvest,” Grimes said in a recent Beef Newsletter. “When a forage plant exhibits a seed head or bloom, it is time to harvest. From the time the heads begin to emerge in the grasses, digestibility decreases approximately one-half percentage unit per day. In the case of legumes, digestibility is also reduced by one-third to one-half percentage unit each day following the development of flower buds.”

The challenging weather has amplified the situation.

“Mother Nature has not been very cooperative with farmers thus far this spring as rainfall has slowed field activities in many portions of the state. Corn and soybean planting are running behind schedule and it appears that first cutting hay harvest is going to lag behind schedule as well,” Grimes said. “Even with the relatively cool temperatures seen around the state, forage growth is advancing and in southern Ohio grasses can be commonly seen heading out.”

There is a balance between grazing and making hay that needs to be considered as well.

“Beef producers should recognize the value of forages in their operations. Beef animals are ruminants and are designed to function on adequate supplies of good quality forage. While all feedstuffs are relatively expensive these days, forages provide us our best opportunity for reasonable production costs,” Grimes said. “Forages are certainly more cost-effective when they are grazed when compared to mechanical harvest. However, Ohio winters necessitate a certain amount of harvested forages to maintain beef animals through challenging conditions.”

Once the hay is made, there is a new set of management considerations.

“I would contend that we typically do a less than adequate job of planning on how we are going to store the hay crop,” he said. “The invention of the large round baler provided producers an efficient method to harvest large numbers of acres in a short time with a minimal amount of labor. Large round bales certainly reduced the amount of time required to feed hay in the winter. However, with this added convenience associated with large round bales, I believe we have seen a reduction in the amount of attention paid to storage of the crop.”

Grimes suggests a fact sheet from the University of Kentucky for more on this issue.

“The bottom line is that producers need to do a better job of preserving hay in order to insure adequate supplies of quality feeds for our herds and help improve profitability,” he said. “I suspect the days of producing or purchasing “cheap” hay are a thing of the past for the foreseeable future. Hay is a valuable commodity and it is about time that we treat it like one.”

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