Anyone planning to harvest Conservation Reserve Program fields for hay this year should do so as soon as possible, according to Kevin Sedivec, North Dakota State University Extension Service rangeland management specialist.
NDSU research on CRP fields harvested for hay indicates that fields harvested during the first half of July produce the highest-quality feed, while hay cut after Aug. 1 have a 30 percent lower crude protein content than fields cut before July 15.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that North Dakota farmers and ranchers can hay on and graze CRP acres in all counties starting today under an emergency declaration resulting from drought conditions.
Because farmers and ranchers weren't able to start haying when the fields were at their peak for crude protein, they need to cut these fields as quickly as possible to retain as many nutrients as possible, Sedivec says.
Under the emergency status, only 50 percent of each field or continuous field is allowed to be hayed.
Based on NDSU research conducted on CRP hay quality during emergency declarations in 1996 and 2002, haying history, timing of the harvest and plant species composition are three key factors in determining which field or parts of each field to harvest as emergency hay.
CRP fields harvested for hay within the last three years had a 23 percent higher crude protein content than fields that never had been harvested or were harvested four or more years ago, the research shows.
"When the plant communities are rested for a substantial amount of time, standing litter builds up and the harvested feed becomes dominated by old plant tissue, lowering the nutritional quality and palatability (taste)," Sedivec says.
Most CRP fields hayed in 2012 will be the same stands that were harvested in the past, or they will be seeded to the same plant species as those hayed in previous years, he notes.
The research also found that alfalfa was the No. 1 plant species that had a direct impact on nutritional content of CRP hay. CRP fields with less than 10 percent alfalfa in the stand were 21 percent lower in crude protein content than stands with 11 to 50 percent alfalfa and 64 percent lower than stands with 50 percent or more alfalfa available.
Stands with 10 percent or less alfalfa had an average crude protein content of 7.2 percent, followed by 8.7 percent for stands with 11 to 30 percent and 31 to 50 percent alfalfa composition, and 11.8 percent in stands with greater than 50 percent alfalfa.
"So, when selecting a CRP field or a part of a CRP field, survey the land to select the best 50 percent to harvest for emergency hay," Sedivec advises.
"First, select those areas that have been harvested within the last three years," he says "Second, select fields or parts that contain the greatest amount of alfalfa. Lastly, cut these fields as early as possible. By following these steps, the potential to attain the highest-quality feed is possible."