The window for harvesting leafy forage hay in the Southeastern United States can be fickle and narrow, so growers need to be prepared to make the most of good weather when it comes.

Dirk Philipp, assistant professor of forages for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said frequent storm events can impede opportunities to harvest forages including alfalfa, so producers should have a plan focusing on making the best quality hay possible.

“Producers will have to make a compromise of quality and quantity, but if you produce for a certain market, make sure the quality is consistent,” Philipp said. “This is especially important for alfalfa hay.”

Philipp recommended cutting early in the morning on warm, dry days in order to make the most of available drying time.

“Everyone has preferences of working, but if cutting too late, you may lose an entire day of drying,” Philipp said.

Philipp recommended using a relatively wide swath — 75 percent of a mower’s width —for rapid drying times, keeping cutting heights low but leaving at least 1-3 inches of stubble on the ground, and making sure growers achieve even crimping through the careful use of conditioning rolls.

Philipp said that although tedding — the process of drying forage such as alfalfa by shaking it out and loosening it — is considered controversial by some growers due to potential leaf loss, the process is actually recommended if done shortly after mowing, and before its moisture content drops below 65 percent.

“Most producers have a good idea what the hay moisture is based on experience,” he said. “However, as the hay gets more dry, check more frequently. On hot, relatively dry days, the point of 18-20 percent moisture may be reached quickly and there’s no need to wait longer to get a 10 percent moisture level. This is especially important because below 10 percent, ‘leaf shatter’ will be excessive while baling.”

Once the hay is mowed, Philipp recommended raking alfalfa into windrows once moisture reaches about 40-50 percent, which will reduce respiration losses and leaf shatter.

“This is a crucial step for alfalfa,” he said. “Producers will need to use their experience to pick the exact time for raking, when the swath is not entirely dry yet.”

Growers should pay attention to differences in stem moisture and leaf moisture, and create even, uniform windrows, which will help produce bales of consistent weight, size and shape. Larger windrows mean less leaf loss, but windrows should still be matched to the baler’s maximum feeding capacity, Philipp said.

Once growers begin baling, they should be sure to check the quality after the first few bales to make sure the density is correct and the twine or warping is working properly.

Philipp said that if a grower is making square bales on a large farm area, he or she should either enlist help moving them off the field or invest in moving equipment. If a farmer is making round bales, he or she will want to move them off the field as quickly as possible, before exposure to the elements damages the forage.

For more information about forages and livestock management, visit http://www.uaex.edu or contact your county extension agent.