I am sure you have heard the phrase about making hay when the sun shines and that is exactly where we are this year. The unusually dry and warm April may have caused most of the cool season grasses like orchardgrass to be shorter than normal. This is the third week of May, and most of the hay fields that I have seen have several seed heads on the orchardgrass, and it is not very tall or thick.

Some could blame the low yield on low use of fertilizer over the last few years due to higher prices. The price of fertilizer is not near as high as it was a couple of years ago, but in some cases people have used less fertilizer and it could be catching up. Even if this is the case in some fields, I have yet to see hardly any fields that appear to be normal for this time of the year, when it comes to yield.

So, there is not lots of hay in the field, now what do you do? I am sure there are several schools of thought on this, but here is one to think about. First of all, once that plant goes to producing seed, that is what it puts nearly all of its energy into, so additional growth is not there. That plant is finished growing and is maturing by producing the seed. Unless you are planning on harvesting seed, why wait? I have heard farmers say they are waiting on the undergrowth. While waiting on undergrowth, the mature plant that has already produced seed is dying. It will soon start to lose some of the green color and eventually turn brown. As that takes place from this point on, that plant is losing nutritional value. OK, so back to, now what do you do?

It is not the easiest answer, especially when it comes to time and labor, or even cost of fuel, but make the first cutting now. As soon as the weather permits, harvest the first cutting and get it off the field so the plants can start over, becoming vegetative again. The quantity of hay that you put in a bale will be less than normal in most cases, but it should be of pretty good quality if it is cut before the plants mature even more. Some later maturing species including timothy may not be there yet, but most of the fescue and orchardgrass is ready. If the first cutting is removed early, the plant still has time to hopefully benefit from early season rains for the summer months and possibly utilize some of the fertilizer that the first cutting didn't, so there's opportunity for a good second cutting.

I will warn you that cutting hay early when it is less coarse and better feed allows livestock to acquire more total nutrition from it. As a result, they can consume more, and digest more. Thus, the higher quality hay can be targeted towards the cow groups that need it the most. This may also be an opportunity to feed some high quality hay along with some lesser quality hay that you have left over, or that you harvest later. Be sure to record where the better hay is stored and feed it accordingly.

When you store your hay, there are some fairly simple things that can be done to help save more of it from loss before you feed it. The ideal situation would be to store the hay under roof. This may not fit your situation. Covering it with tarps will help, but they can be a challenge to keep in place. Maybe the easiest and cheapest way to reduce loss would be where you stack the hay if it has to be stacked outside. Avoid stacking it along wooded areas that shade the sun from drying the surface after a rain. Avoid stacking the hay in areas where the water will pool around it. Stack the hay on a high area so water runs away from it. Even then water tends to run off of the bale and concentrate near the bottom of the bale. The use of gravel or something else like tires or pallets that will let the water get away from the bale will help even more.

I mention the storage part with this article because it is important to get those first cutting round bales off of the field as soon as possible so the second cutting possibility has a better chance. Keep in mind that hay does go through a sweat, and storage decisions should be based on the condition of the hay when it is put into a bale. Hay that may be marginal for too much moisture can cause problems from moldy hay, to barn fires, so keep this in mind as you harvest and store the hay crop.

If the weather permits and you are able to get all of your hay in a bale early while there is still high quality to the forage, be sure to pull some samples for testing later on. This is another reason to keep record of where you store the hay. For around $20 per sample you can find out what nutritional value the feed you are providing your livestock has. This will allow you to supplement if needed. It may also give you the opportunity to measure the quality of the earliest fields harvested compared the latest fields harvested. The protein, energy and feed values should be quite different in these comparisons.

If you would like to pull samples, many OSU Extension offices have hay probes available for use. Contact your local office of OSU Extension for more information.

Source: David Dugan, Ohio State University Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources