As I traveled around western South Dakota the last few days, there is a lot of first-cutting hay being cut. It seems early, but everything has been two to three weeks early because of the warm, dry spring across most of the Northern Plains. Recent dryness in the west and excess rainfall in the east plains has created challenges for both locations. Here are a few thoughts to consider as the hay-making season progresses:
• Hay yield increases and nutritional quality decreases as the forage matures. The best time to cut is a balancing act between quantity and quality to meet the needs of the livestock that the hay is being fed to.
If the hay is going to be fed to livestock with high nutrient requirements, such as lactating dairy cows, or if it needs to be high quality because it will be used as a supplement for low-quality forage, such as dormant range or corn stalks, then cutting earlier may be desired, realizing that it sacrifices some yield.
On the other hand, if the hay is going to be used to meet the total feed requirements of dry beef cows in mid- to late-pregnancy during the winter, it can be cut at later maturity because the livestock's nutrient requirements are the lowest they will ever be. Cutting at later maturity increases yield.
• Cut hay in the late afternoon or evening. Backed by solid research, nutrient content is higher because the plants will have most of the daylight to photosynthesize and produce new nutrients (carbohydrates for energy and protein). Conversely, plants will have used some of these nutrients during the night when they can't photosynthesize. Thus, nutrient content is at its lowest in the early morning.
• Moisture content at the time of baling. Baling before adequate drying will lead to mold in bales (or stacks of loose hay) and heating. Lower amounts of heating can lead to carmelization or heat damage, in which protein can get bound up to the point that it is not digestible. Extreme levels of heating can lead to spontaneous combustion and haystack fires.
On the other hand, baling when the hay in the windrow is too dry will lead to the shatter of leaves. This will contribute to some yield loss, but more important, it will create huge losses in nutrient content because the leaves are much higher in nutrient content and digestibility than stems.
Baling needs to be done at an appropriate time (usually early morning) so that the windrow has had time to dry to the core, but when dew is on the outer surface of the windrow so that it isn't too dry.
• Haymaking is an all day project. The best order to maximize nutrient retention is to bale in the early morning, stack in the middle of the day, and cut at the end of the day.
• Haymaking during rain spells is a challenge. It becomes nearly impossible to get the hay dry enough to bale when it is repeatedly rained on. Additionally, rain leaches a lot of nutrients out of the windrow, so even once it has dried enough to be baled after a rain, it will be lower quality hay. There are a few alternatives to consider to help in this situation.
Preservatives can be sprayed on moist hay as it is picked up by the baler. This can be very effective, although there are limitations. The hay does have to be partially dried. It also requires the additional spray equipment mounted on the baler.
Another option is to make silage or baleage rather than hay. Baleage is an attractive choice. Although it requires another piece of equipment to wrap plastic on the bale after it comes out of the baler, it still provides a lot of latitude for putting up hay in wet conditions.
• It takes rain to produce adequate yields. I wish I could suggest some alternatives that help in dry conditions, but unfortunately, it takes rain to produce adequate yields. I only suggest that producers consider the cost of fuel and equipment wear-and-tear in regard to low producing fields. It may be more economical to graze these fields rather than putting up a small amount of high-cost hay.
Many other considerations are important to haymaking, including advantages and disadvantages of different stacking arrangement. Stay tuned for a future column on that topic.
• Test hay quality. To finish up, it is really important that all hay be tested once it is harvested. Hay quality varies tremendously because of all of these variables. It is impossible to ensure that a herd's nutrient requirements will be met without knowing what nutrient levels are in the hay. With the current high costs of feedstuffs, including hay, it is critical that the right feeds be used to balanced the nutrient needs of livestock.