Harvest properly for top-notch hay
Poor harvesting conditions or methods can reduce a good hay crop to a poor one, says Glenn Shewmaker, University of Idaho forage specialist. Stage of harvest is also important in terms of market or plans for feeding the hay.
“For mature beef cattle or nonworking adult horses, mature hay can fit nutritional needs. But mares with foals, dairy cows or beef cows with calves need early-cut immature plants that are higher in protein,” he says. The lowest-quality hay — damaged by weather, dust or mold — can only be fed to non-lactating beef cattle.
Hay and stock producers and horsemen gauge maturity by looking for buds or flowers when judging alfalfa. “If it’s grass hay, you look for the boot stage if you want high-quality hay. Seed heads indicate more maturity. One challenge with mixed hay [containing grass and alfalfa] is that one species is generally ahead of the other in maturity; timing of cutting must be a compromise,” Shewmaker says.
“The detergent fiber test — important for dairy hay — has often led us to discount grass hay too much. There are higher fiber levels in grass hay, but it’s a more digestible fiber. Some of the newer tests, like for neutral detergent fiber and relative forage quality as opposed to older tests for relative feed value, are better measures and more accurately compare grass and mixed hays with alfalfa,” he explains.
• Plants’ maturity stage and time of day when cut make a difference in quality.
• Moisture levels are important for leaf retention and mold prevention.
• The moisture level is more crucial for big bales than small bales.
Check the contents
“Hay cut in late afternoon has higher nutrient content than hay cut in the morning. Plants accumulate sugars and starches during the day through photosynthesis, and use nutrients at night as they grow,” he says. Hay cut in late afternoon has the highest nutrient values.
“Studies in Canada evaluating animal production show significant positive benefit in milk production [and weight gain in beef cattle], utilizing forage cut in late afternoon.”
Hay too moist is likely to mold. Hay too dry leads to shattering and loss of leaves going through the baler. “In dry climates hay producers try to bale hay with a little dew on it, to minimize leaf loss, since most of the nutrients are in the leaves [whether alfalfa or grass] rather than stems,” Shewmaker says.
“For most arid regions, it’s best to bale after sundown when hay is not so dry. In the early morning, if there’s a lot of dew, it becomes too wet. You may have half an hour of ideal baling conditions in early morning, before hay becomes too ‘tough,’ ” he says.
Sometimes it’s hard to make ideal hay; you may be trying to get the field baled before it gets rained on. “Once it’s in a bale, a little rain won’t hurt it; moisture won’t penetrate more than an inch or so, unless it’s a downpour or several days of rain.”
This is the tricky part. “Hay needs to get as dry as possible before baling, and hopefully baled in the evening when humidity rises, so leaves stay attached. This is especially important for alfalfa; those leaves tend to shatter when dry. Leaf shatter is less important for grass. For small bales, you can have moisture as high as 16% to 18% for good leaf attachment. But if moisture gets above 18%, mold is likely,” he says. Big bales are trickier because they are denser. “You try for moisture between 13% and 15%.”
Smith-Thomas writes from Salmon, Idaho.
This article published in the May, 2014 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.
All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2014.