Ditch hay may ease short hay inventory, with some precautions

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For many years, dairy farmers have been utilizing ditch hay as forage for feeding to their young growing heifers, dry cows, or dairy steers. With last year's nationwide drought, and this year's alfalfa winterkill and drowned out acres, forage supplies have been pushed to the limits, and more farmers may be turning to ditch hay as a forage option. In addition, with grass hay prices being quite high right now, more farmers may be baling ditch hay to sell for a profit. While ditch hay could provide an extra income stream this summer, and it provides viable forage for heifers, dry cows, or steers, there are some points to consider before turning to ditch hay for your operation's livestock.

Cutting, raking, and baling ditch hay comes with some risk. Producers should use caution in determining what ditches are too steep to harvest safely. Before harvesting any ditch that a producer isn't familiar with, it's a good idea to do a walk-through to locate culverts, fence posts, signs, or other obstructions that could cause hazards or damage equipment. Spending the time to do this beforehand can save time, sickle bar parts, and money. It can also prevent dangerous accidents. Make sure tractors used are equipped with a roll over protection structure (ROPS) in case of a rollover.

Some ditches may accumulate a high amount of garbage that can be dangerous as well. Glass bottles can damage tractor and implement tires, and certainly wouldn't be desirable to be feeding to any livestock. Plastic bottles and wrappers, aluminum cans, and other garbage causes a nuisance when feeding and certainly doesn't look good to potential buyers. They also don't make good additions to a TMR mix if being fed to heifers or dry cows. If possible, it's not a bad idea to pick up garbage as well before cutting or baling to avoid these issues. If a ditch is overly littered with garbage and it is a concern, perhaps it's best to pass on that ditch and look for a cleaner one.

Some ditches may accumulate a high amount of garbage that can be dangerous as well. Glass bottles can damage tractor and implement tires, and certainly wouldn't be desirable to be feeding to any livestock. Plastic bottles and wrappers, aluminum cans, and other garbage causes a nuisance when feeding and certainly doesn't look good to potential buyers. They also don't make good additions to a TMR mix if being fed to heifers or dry cows. If possible, it's not a bad idea to pick up garbage as well before cutting or baling to avoid these issues. If a ditch is overly littered with garbage and it is a concern, perhaps it's best to pass on that ditch and look for a cleaner one.

It's important to know what herbicides have been sprayed in ditches (if any) for weed control, before harvesting for hay. Talk to landowners, or the appropriate county or township workers to determine what herbicides have been sprayed where. An article written by Krishona Martinson and Liz Stahl, Regional Extension Educators with University of Minnesota Extension, mentions there have been some instances of significant injury to soybeans as a result of manure application from livestock fed ditch hay that had been treated with picloram or clopyralid. Aminopyralid is another herbicide that can cause these issues. These herbicides are commonly used in roadsides because they kill noxious weeds such as leafy spurge, while not harming grasses. However, these herbicides pass quickly through animals without being degraded, and end up in manure via urine. The article suggests that manure containing these herbicides should only be applied on fields that will be planted to non-susceptible crops such as corn, small grains, or sorghum-sudan for 18 months following manure application. For more information, or to view this article visit http://z.umn.edu/ditchhay.

It's also important to note that on July 22nd, the USDA – Farm Service Agency (FSA) announced that Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in 19 counties in Minnesota have been opened up for emergency haying and grazing, due to widespread issues with drowned out acres caused by this spring's excessive rainfall in those areas of the state. If ditch hay is not available, dairy farmers in these counties may be able to take advantage of CRP acres in their county as an option for grass hay for livestock. The 19 counties with CRP now available for haying and grazing are: Blue Earth, Carver, Dakota, Dodge, Faribault, Fillmore, Freeborn, Goodhue, Houston, Jackson, Le Sueur, Mower, Nicollet, Olmsted, Scott, Steele, Wabasha, Waseca and Winona. Remember that producers must contact their local FSA office before beginning any haying and grazing, and haying must be completed by August 31 (with all bales removed by September 15), while grazing must be completed by September 30th.

If baling ditch hay this summer, producers should remember to plan ahead and think safety. Do a walk-through of the ditch to remove garbage and locate obstructions and safety hazards, only use tractors with ROPS, and communicate with landowners, county or township workers to know what herbicides have been sprayed on ditches. With proper planning and preparation, ditch hay can be harvested safely and can provide an important feed option for local dairy producers.


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