Hay making considerations

By Rory Lewandowski, Extension Educator, Athens County and Buckeye Hills EERA

Rainy weather and saturated soils have meant a late start to the hay making season. Here are some things to consider when making hay:

Plant maturity: This is the largest determining factor regarding hay quality. The highest quality hay is made from plants in the vegetative to early reproductive stage. As plants mature, fiber levels increase, and crude protein and energy content decreases. This year it looks like there will be a lot of low quality first cut hay. The weather removed this factor from our control and now we have to deal with it.

Cutting Height: This can affect both hay quality and longevity of the stand. Cutting heights for primarily grass hay stands should not go below 3.5 inches, especially if the stand is orchardgrass. In the April 20th edition of the Beef Cattle Letter, Garry Lacefield had an article in which he talked about questions he was receiving from farmers asking why their orchardgrass hay fields were not lasting as long as in previous years. Lacefield believes that much of the lost persistence is due to using disc mowers. These mowers allow lower cutting heights, in the 1 to 2 inch range. Orchardgrass stores carbohydrates in the lower stem area. Cutting orchardgrass below 3.5 inches will decrease the life of the plant. Secondly, low cutting heights increase the ash content of the harvested hay. Much of this is due to picking up soil that is on the lower portion of the plant from rain splashing or added to the plants in the raking process when windrows are lying close to the soil surface. A high ash content will show up in reduced energy content of the forage. Moisture content: The moisture content that hay is baled at greatly influence leaf loss, which is directly correlated with hay quality. Hay baled below 15% moisture has the greatest amount of leaf loss. There is a relatively fine line between baling hay too dry and suffering excessive leaf loss and baling hay too wet and incurring storage losses due to mold and spoilage. The upper moisture limit for large round bales is 18 to 20%. Hay baled above 20% moisture generally requires a chemical preservative to avoid losses due to heating and mold growth.

Cost: Hay is expensive to make. There are nutrient removal costs and machinery and labor costs. I recently did a calculation using local fertilizer prices plus custom machinery and labor rates. The cost to replace the nutrients removed was around $55 per ton. The machinery and labor cost was between $25 to $30 per ton. These costs are incurred whether you are making a high quality hay or a low quality hay.

This brings me to my final point of having a hay use plan: Do you have a plan on how you will use your hay? Do you know how much hay you will need? Do you need to make hay on every acre of your hayfields? My point is that many years you can drive around the country and see old hay bales off to one side of the field, rotting away. That represents dollars wasted and nutrients removed unnecessarily. Low quality first cutting hay will have limited use in terms of meeting cattle nutrient requirements. It may only meet the needs of early gestation weaned cows. How much of that quality hay do you need? I have had one cattleman tell me that instead of making hay on one of his fields he is just going to clip it off high, let the grass and nutrients recycle back into the field and plan to stockpile that field for grazing use. It’s something to think about.

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