The management practices you use in harvesting and storing your hay crop can influence its ultimate feed value and your bottom line. University of Nebraska Extension specialists offer the following tips for reducing harvest losses.
- Cutting – Hay is usually cut with a sickle or drum type mower, a windrower, or swather. Cut after the dew is gone and when the topsoil is dry to reduce soil compaction and to hasten hay drying. A long stubble keeps the windrow off the soil surface to aid drying and improve subsequent pickup performance. However, high stubble height reduces forage yield. The acceptable windrow width for round balers is between one-half and near full width of the baler pickup.
- Conditioning – Conditioning of legumes speeds drying by opening the waxy layer surrounding the stem. Large or coarse stemmed hays tend to respond to conditioning better than fine stemmed hays.
- Raking – When possible, eliminate raking by using a windrower. Windrowed hay will dry slower than hay in a wide swath. More leaf loss can be caused by raking dry alfalfa than by any other harvest operation. Avoid raking when the forage moisture is less than 40 percent.
- Hay Desiccants – Hay desiccants are used to reduce the length of time needed for hay drying. The chemical drying agent is sprayed onto the hay during cutting to remove the moisture?conserving, waxy cutin layer of alfalfa, clover and birdsfoot trefoils. This allows the stem to dry faster and can reduce the interval between cutting and baling. Hay desiccants may decrease time needed for drying by one third. However, hay desiccants are ineffective on grasses such as orchardgrass, timothy, or bromegrass. Hay desiccants work the best in good drying conditions and are less effective in poor drying conditions. Leaching losses may be greater in desiccant?treated alfalfa if rained on before baling. Hay desiccants commonly used are potassium carbonate or sodium carbonate. Potassium carbonate is applied at 5 to 7 pounds of active ingredient per acre through a mixture sprayed at 15 to 30 gallons per acre. Equipment cost for applications can be high (approximately $1,200 for a sprayer to be mounted on a 9 foot mower) with moderate expense for product ($5 to $6 per acre).
- Respiration Losses – After cutting, plant cells respire until moisture content falls below 35 to 40 percent. Hay that dries quickly will lose 2 to 6 percent dry matter (DM) due to respiration. Hay that dries very slowly may lose 15 percent DM due to respiration. Cutting hay when good drying weather is expected will reduce respiration losses considerably.
- Weathering Losses – Rain (leaching) can cause up to 20 percent nutrient loss. Carbohydrates, B vitamins, and some soluble minerals are readily leached from dry hay.
- Time of Cutting – Natural physiological processes in plants cause the concentrations of soluble carbohydrates and other highly digestible nutrients to peak in the evening. Recent research suggests that hay cut at or near sundown is higher in energy than hay harvested at sunup.