Hay Harvest Considerations

To maximize hay forage quality, grass hay needs to be swathed by the end of the boot stage before the seed starts to emerge from the leaf sheath. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Spring is here and forages are starting to take off before the first hay cutting begins around much of the country. Producers are making harvest plans, but they may want to reevaluate their strategy to better optimize forage quality.

Plant maturity is the main factor impacting forage quality, says Pat Keyser, professor and director of the Center for Native Grasslands Management at the University of Tennessee.

As plants get older and past the boot stage of growth they start to accumulate more fiber which negatively impacts cattle intake and decrease the nutritional benefit of the hay.

When it comes to poor quality hay Keyser says it might be “better than a snowball” but if a producer is going to put up hay they should shoot for higher standards. “Cattle can starve to death on poor quality hay,” he adds.

Cattle raisers pay the price for poor quality hay by having cattle with lower body condition and reproductive efficiency. “It won’t move through the rumen because there’s too much fiber and they’re just not extracting enough nutrition,” Keyser says of forage that is too mature.

The late boot phase is when Keyser and Daren Redfearn, Extension forage specialist for University of Nebraska, both recommend cutting a hay stand.

“What makes that a critical stage is that there is not an accumulation of much yield after that point,” Redfearn says.

The boot stage occurs when the seed head is starting to come out of the leaf sheath of most forages. The plant is more focused on seed development at the end of the boot stage.

Maximizing Each Acre

Nearly every hay acre that farmers have available is capable of growing quality forage if managed and harvested timely, says Joe Lawrence, forage systems specialist at Cornell University.

“I would encourage folks to start think of every acre and cutting as a different opportunity,” Lawrence says.

Working around the weather is a concern for many producers. Hay cutting and baling require forage growers to often work between rains.

Lawrence suggests producers try managing for the weather rather than letting the weather manage them.

“There’s a lot of one and two day opportunities or a day or two following just a trace of rain,” Lawrence says. “We may not be willing to pull the trigger and mow hay if two days later, there’s a bunch more rain forecast.”

Wide swathing, raking or bagging haylage could all be ways to help speed up harvest and fit it into a narrower window.

“There’s a lot of opportunities where we’re using one of these more intensive systems,” Lawrence says.

When putting up multiple cuttings of hay, the first cutting on a field often sets the stage for how the rest of the harvest season will go.

“First cutting is a really good opportunity for some high quality feed,” Lawrence says.

Lawrence thinks it is better for producers to focus the early season cuttings on getting quality forage from all the acres rather than pinpointing particular fields for a certain class of cattle. Pre-determining that a field is already poor hay because you think it has lower forage quality is a lost opportunity to produce high quality forage.

Should enough high quality forage be harvested in the first or possibly second cuttings, any remaining cuttings can be focused on yield.

This year spring planting has been delayed around much of the country. In the Central Plains region Redfearn believes the growing season might be delayed by around two week. However, he cautions forage growers not to look at the calendar.

“I don’t know that guys need to start adjusting their plans yet based on what’s happened. They need to watch the plants, don’t watch the calendar much,” Redfearn says.

This year is expected to be the second lowest hay crop since 1906 by USDA. To find out more on the hay harvest, visit www.Drovers.com/2018-hay-acreage