Rain In May Dampens Haymakers’ Plans

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COLUMBIA, Mo. – The rain won and haymakers lost. Farmers aiming to harvest quality hay have been frustrated by prolonged rain in May, says a University of Missouri Extension forage specialist.

But Rob Kallenbach has a plan for next year: Harvest more hay early, starting in April, to improve the odds of cutting and baling hay without getting rain damage.

Watching producers who record their grass grazing and haymaking progress on the MU Extension grazing-wedge website, Kallenbach sees producers using his new strategy.

“Graziers who baled hay in April are ahead of everyone in making quality hay for winter feeding,” he said. “But cutting early will take a change in thinking for some.”

Traditionally, May is haymaking month across Missouri. Hay cut early in May has a chance of being made when plants have the fewest seed heads and the leaves contain the highest nutrient content.

Cattle don’t like to graze seed heads. Even worse, fescue seed heads contain a toxin from fescue endophyte that cuts cattle performance, whether in pounds of gain or pounds of milk.

For years Kallenbach has taught that the goal should be to cut hay before grass sets seed. Once seeds form, the plant nutrients move from the leaves into the seed. This lowers the quality of the hay to be fed next winter.

While May is the goal, most hay in Missouri is cut in the somewhat drier month of June—or even July—well past prime quality. “The last three years, with high rainfall, we’ve baled a lot of bad hay,” Kallenbach said. April has lower average monthly rainfall than May or June.

Some farmers may resist the idea of cutting hay in April because grass won’t look tall enough to cut, Kallenbach admits. “They think they will make more hay if they wait, but I’d rather have one bale of high-quality April hay than two bales of bad late-June hay.

“It’s the difference between nutritious feed and sawdust.”

Once seeds form, the grass leaves and stems become straw instead of hay.

Making one bale of quality hay instead of two bales of straw makes both economic and nutrition sense.

It costs the same in fuel, machinery and labor to cut, rake and bale bad hay as high-quality hay. The same applies at feeding time.

“You have to move and feed two bales on a cold morning, instead of one bale of quality hay,” Kallenbach said. “In addition, when feeding bad hay, you’ll have to go out and feed a supplement to make up for lost protein and energy.”

Keeping records on the grazing wedge helps graziers know which forage paddocks to harvest first. Farmers using the wedge measure and record the pounds of dry matter per acre in each paddock once a week. The software behind the wedge highlights in red any paddocks that are past their prime. The goal is to harvest hay before quality starts to decline.

In a grazing system stocked with animals for year-round grazing, producers are finding that in the rapid growth of spring, about half the pastures must be harvested for hay to maintain grazing quality. “Too many producers lose the chance to make quality feed by not seeing which paddocks need to be harvested first,” Kallenbach said.

Keeping seed heads under control is the first step in improving both grazing and hay harvesting.

“A grass plant has only one purpose in life,” Kallenbach said. “It must make seed to continue the species.”

Farmers have other purposes. Graziers want nutritious leaves, not seed, to feed their livestock.

By harvesting or grazing before the leaves lose nutrients, a producer cuts the need for buying supplements.

“Quality hay reduces feed costs, the No. 1 cost in maintaining a herd,” he said.

Starting hay harvest early—think April—improves chances for profitable livestock production. That’s Kallenbach’s new message.

Producer can see MU grazing wedges at plantsci.missouri.edu/grazingwedge/.

Source: Robert L. Kallenbach, University of Missouri Extension



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