6 Tips to produce high-quality hay at your farm

Hay making procedure

Producing quality hay is important whether you feed your own hay or sell it to others. When producing hay for on-farm use, we do not often consider its value, but it is still important.

High-quality hay will reduce or eliminate the need for livestock supplementation during the winter, while low-quality hay will cost more money through increased supplementation needs and/or reduced animal performance. There are a few factors primarily responsible for hay quality, and managing them appropriately will ensure quality hay is produced.

hay making
hay making

1. Plant maturity
The most important thing to consider when producing high-quality hay is plant maturity at cutting. As the plant matures, crude protein and digestibility decrease drastically, while fiber factions increase. This is because the leaf-to-stem ratio shifts toward the stem as the plant starts to enter the reproductive stage (seedhead formation). Many times, maximizing forage yields becomes the main driver of determining when to harvest hay, but this will result in cutting the forage past optimum maturity. The best method is to optimize quality and yield; while this will sacrifice some yield, the return on the increased nutritive quality will be greater than the loss of additional yield. In general, the proper stage for harvesting in grasses is boot stage or 10% bloom for legumes.

2. Plant species and variety selection
Forage species and variety selection have a moderate to high impact on hay quality. There are many factors that should be considered when choosing a forage species and variety, including climatic conditions, livestock needs, management goals and soil type. More recent variety releases will typically have a more superior quality and yield potential than older varieties; however, they usually cost more to establish than older varieties. When choosing the right species and variety, consulting your local extension professional can be helpful to determine the best species and variety for your farm.

3. Bale storage
Another factor that contributes a moderate level of impact on hay quality is bale storage. All of the hard work done to produce high-quality hay can be forgotten if hay is stored improperly. Approximately $3 billion of hay is lost per year from poor storage and feeding in the U.S. This is a major loss to the forage and livestock industry. When possible, store hay inside or cover with a tarp outside. If storing outside, placing hay off the ground on gravel or pallets can further reduce hay losses. Hay waste can be reduced from 30%-45% to only 2%-5% by simply storing it in a pole barn. While the initial expense of a hay barn can be daunting, as a good ag economist once told me, you will pay for a hay barn one way or another.

4. Rain during curing
The next factor to consider is a rain event during curing. It is important to avoid cutting if a significant rainfall (greater than 1/2-inch) is predicted during the curing. Any experienced hay producer will keep the Weather Channel on 24/7 when getting ready to cut hay. This is important, but when we consider smaller rains (for example 0.1-inch), the impact on forage quality might not be as much as we expect. Research has shown the dry matter loss of bermudagrass hay with 1/2-inch of rainfall during curing was only 1%. The affect of increased plant maturity as a result of delayed harvesting will be greater in this scenario. The study also looked at orchardgrass and reported 3% dry matter loss at the same amount of rainfall. There is not a clear rule of thumb on rainfall amount that would be acceptable, but when considering delaying cutting because of rain chances, keep in mind that plant maturity will also decrease forage quality.

5. Moisture at baling
A related factor to consider is moisture at baling. We are all aware of the fire risk associated with high-moisture hay, but hay that has a low risk of fire (16%-20% moisture) will still likely mold. In addition to mold growth, an unseen consequence is a reduction in protein digestibility. Similar to burning food in the oven, the proteins will create indigestible compounds in the forage as heat increases. This will decrease palatability and increase animal waste, but also decrease forage quality. Maintaining 10%-15% moisture in round bales and 10%-18% in small square bales is important for ensuring high-quality hay.

6. Soil fertility
The last factor to consider when making high-quality hay is soil fertility. Proper fertilization is very important but has a relatively low effect on forage quality, as compared to the previous topics discussed. Soil test on an annual basis in hay fields. Follow soil test recommendations to apply nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and lime each year. If using animal manures (for example, poultry litter), make sure to test them to determine the exact nutrients available. Animal manures will vary greatly in nutrients depending on the class and management of the livestock, as well as its storage after collection. Many states now require manures be tested prior to application to prevent overapplication of nutrients and negative environmental impacts.

After getting your hay up and in the barn, it is important to get a forage analysis. This will help balance winter rations for hay used on-farm, and for producers selling hay off farm, it will help you get full value for the hay. Many hay buyers will request a hay analysis prior to purchase.

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