The days of cutting hay on an International H or M tractor with a sickle mower are long gone for most. It seemed like a field took forever to finish cutting. I clearly remember the day that Dad purchased a 12-foot mower with conditioner, boy could you lay down the hay with that piece of equipment. Needless to say, hay equipment has improved over the last few decades. As managers of the forage resource, we still need to make wise decisions to ensure hay quality is adequate to hopefully reduce the amount of supplementation that will be required to meet the animal nutrient requirements.
What is the description of high quality hay? Many producers would say quality hay is green in color, free of mold and weeds, has a high portion of leaves and it was put up without rain on it. These are good indicators of high quality hay but they don’t tell anything about the nutritional content of the forage. Sampling the hay once it is in the stack to send to a lab for nutritional analysis is essential to understanding its true quality.
What are the best management practices that should be considered to improve the odds of getting a stack of high quality hay? This article might just reconfirm that your hay harvesting management is correct.
Do you go for quantity or quality? Forage has the highest digestibility in the vegetative stage, but also normally a lower amount to harvest. As the plant matures from vegetative to seed stage, the digestibility decreases and the amount of biomass available for harvest increases. Figure 1 shows that maximum yield of digestive dry matter. For grasses the maximum yield of digestive dry matter would be obtained at the late boot to early head stage of maturity and for legumes, the mid-to late-bud stage of maturity is best.
click image to zoom
Research has showed that forage cut at or near sundown has higher energy compared to morning. This is a natural physiological process in plants wherein concentrations of soluble carbohydrates and other highly digestible nutrients are highest after a full day of sunshine and photosynthesis. Tall enough stubble height should be left to aid in drying as well as improve pickup performance. However, too high of stubble height will reduce yields. Correct hay curing (drying) is the next step. Various factors can reduce hay quality during the drying phase, which are respiration, weather and loss of leaves. Using a mower conditioner speeds drying by opening the waxy layer surrounding the stems in legumes. Large and/or coarse stemmed forages have shown faster drying when conditioned. Wider swaths allow faster drying. Raking should be avoided if possible when the forage moisture is less than 40 percent.