Forage quality should be a primary component of setting goals for hay harvesting.
“Plant stage and maturity at the time of cutting directly impact the quality of the final hay, whether grass, alfalfa or a mixture of forages,” says Fara Brummer, area Extension Service livestock systems specialist at North Dakota State University’s Central Grasslands Research Extension Center near Streeter. “As a plant matures and grows taller, the lignin in the stem and other supportive parts increases, and overall digestibility of the forage decreases as it heads out and sets seed.”
Choosing a date for the hay harvest depends on many factors.
“Overall yield of the field will increase as plants continue to mature, but be careful of chasing yield at the cost of losing nutrient quality because digestibility and animal intake of the standing forage will decrease as the season progresses,” NDSU Extension beef cattle specialist Carl Dahlen cautions.
Factors to consider are the age and stage of livestock that will be consuming the hay. For beef cattle diets, the Extension specialists suggest the cutting time is at 10 percent alfalfa bloom in a straight or mixed stand to capture the best quality and quantity. Research has shown that first-cutting alfalfa loses relative feed value at a faster rate every day that passes, compared with later cuts.
For a straight cool-season grass stand such as brome, cutting at flowering to early seed set will maximize quality and quantity. The timing will vary across the state, but in general, this will be near the end of June.
Rain and damp weather that often occur during the first cutting will impact hay quality, especially if the hay is baled wet (more than 18 percent moisture content for large round bales). Mold and other microbial growth can decrease nutrient quality through time.
“If faced with the choice of cutting early and being rained on, or cutting late with no rain, it is better to opt for the second choice because the second cut often can be used for supplemental nutrition,” says Miranda Meehan, Extension livestock environmental stewardship specialist. “However, keep in mind that the second cut will be delayed the longer the wait is for the first harvest.”
If only harvesting one hay crop, aim for the very best quality and plan accordingly. Hay is still a relatively inexpensive feed source and the basis of ruminant winter diets in North Dakota. The higher the quality, the less expensive it becomes as a feed source.
The specialists recommend that producers consider taking a soil test to determine the fertility of their forage stand.
“Depending on your location, you may need to supplement nutrients, especially if you are getting more than one cutting off of a field,” Extension rangeland management specialist Kevin Sedivec says. “For grass stands, nitrogen amendment may be necessary. For alfalfa stands, phosphorus, boron and sulfur can be limiting.”
Manure can be utilized as a fertilizer if the limiting nutrients are identified first and field needs are matched with manure quality. If using manure, the key to success is to apply a thin layer of well-composted or broken-down manure that won’t leave any clumps.
Hay quality and quantity are not determined by the timing of the cutting alone. Hay quality losses occur from cutting, the environment while in the swath, raking and baling. Additional losses can occur during storage, transportation and feeding.
“Evaluate each of these components of your operation to optimize quality and utilization of hay resources,” Brummer advises.
Producers also should test hay for forage quality after the hay is baled to help plan feed needs for wintering cows.
“Contact your local Extension agent for information on how to sample hay for testing and where to send the samples, as well as help in understanding what the results mean,” Dahlen says.