Forage 2017: To Hay or to Harvest – That Is the Question |

Forage 2017: To Hay or to Harvest – That Is the Question

By Terryn Drieling for Tri-State Livestock News
The Copple Ranch of western Nebraska swaths oats to bale for winter cattle feed. Photo by Alissa Copple
Copple Oat Hay

Flexibility in the field can provide farmers much needed peace of mind, especially in today’s variable economic climate. Western Nebraska farmer, rancher, and agronomist, Matt Gasseling, discusses dual purpose grain crops, forage quality, and shed some light on when to hay and when to harvest.

When does it make more economic sense to hay grain crops than to harvest them?

The decision to hay or harvest really depends on each individual operation. Some of the factors producers might consider include:

  • Know your breakeven cost. With many wheat producers realizing a $.60 per bushel dock for low protein wheat on the 2016 crop, knowing your breakeven can be a valuable asset in deciding whether to hay or to harvest.
  • Chemical and fertility programs. Producers can save money by planning to hay and foregoing chemical application. However, it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, by the time decision is made to hay, chemical applications may have already been made to the crop. In these cases, always refer to chemical labels or local retailers to verify pre-harvest interval (PHI) for the chemical in question, as that could make a difference on when the hay could be cut.
  • Landlords and leased land. If it’s not a great year, and producers have bin space included in their lease, they might consider storing the grain until prices pick up. However, a strong case could also be made for taking the crop as hay, eliminating the risk of an unexpected termination of the lease with grain still in the bins.
  • Weather-related occurrences. Obviously, events such as hail, wind, drought, etc. can greatly affect a crop, sometimes to the point of all but making the decision for you.
  • Insurance policies. If growers choose to take the crop for hay prior to March 15th, thirty-five percent of the premium is still due in case of multi-peril insurance. After March 15th, an appraisal would be required, the insurance adjuster may want a strip left in the field, and full premium would be due. In all cases, check with your insurance agent first, as it could still be more profitable to pay the premium and take it as hay rather than wait it out and harvest it.

Given the current economic climate, are producers farther ahead to plan for haying grain crops?

The last couple of years, it likely would have made more sense to hay rather than harvest in many areas. In our area, we have seen high rates of disease such as rust and tan spot. In addition, above-average precipitation has allowed for good vegetative growth, but in some cases has had a negative impact on grain quality.

It looks as though we may be in for similar conditions this growing season, at least in our area. So, it might be the right time for producers to look into haying instead of harvesting.

Ideally, when should you make the decision to hay a crop instead of harvest it?

It varies by region. However, the assessment and decision to pull the trigger and hay should be made roughly forty-five to sixty days prior to harvest. These dates can differ depending on location.

In a dry year, if the field still has a good soil moisture profile, or irrigation capabilities, by that point – the crop will likely make it to harvest. If it is strictly dryland acres combined with dry conditions and a poor market, it might make perfect sense to bale the acres rather than wait it out and harvest them.

Timing also makes a huge difference on forage quality. For, example cutting your wheat down for hay when it is in the boot stage (just prior to head emergence, when the flag leaf sheath encloses the growing head), can produce hay near eleven to twelve percent crude protein. Once it heads out, you can expect crude protein of only around ten percent at best, and you may also run into trouble with beards in cases where the crop is closer to maturity.

In addition to yielding a poorer quality forage, wheat hayed after the heads have emerged will contain beards. The beards can present a problem as they are prone to getting stuck in the gums of the livestock who consume them. This type of wheat hay still provides a good filler feed, and when ground, can be incorporated without incident. Again, the more mature the crop the more this becomes an issue.

Is it viable to graze or hay hail-damaged crops?

Yes, hail damaged crops can be grazed or put up as hay. However, the stage of plant growth when the hail damage occurs will affect the forage quality. Plants can respond to stressors such as hail or drought by accumulating nitrates.

For those reasons, I always recommend having a nitrate test and nutrient analysis run on all grain crops before feeding them to livestock. If the forage turns out to be of poor quality, due to level of development or elevated nitrate levels, it can still be utilized and successfully fed with minor adjustments to the nutrition program.

What value does a nitrate test provide, and is it really worth the extra dollars to run it?

Even if the plant hasn’t been stressed, nitrates can still rear their head under the right circumstances, especially in summer annuals that are more prone to elevated nitrate levels. In addition, how the field was fertilized can also play a role in nitrate levels. Personally speaking, I routinely run nitrate tests on any grain crop I am considering feeding as forage to our cattle.

You can test a representative sample for less than thirty dollars. The results come back within a few days, complete with the nitrate levels and recommendations for feeding the tested forage. A nitrate test is a pretty cheap form of insurance, especially when compared with the effects of nitrate toxicity.

What crops offer the best opportunity for either haying or harvesting?

In the right varieties, wheat is a decent dual purpose crop. If a producer is considering wheat as a dual purpose crop, choosing a taller variety can help maximize forage production. This, in turn, provides better opportunity to utilize the crop for grain or forage. In general, wheat has been bred to be shorter over the years to help reduce lodging. So, if a producer is more likely to grow a crop for hay, they may want to look into an awnless forage variety of wheat, or even triticale.

Triticale, a hybrid of wheat and rye, grows taller and yields a greater tonnage than wheat when knocked down for hay. And, with the right market for selling the seed, it is a really great option to raise as a dual purpose, hay or harvest crop.

Another factor to consider when choosing a dual purpose crop is water. Cool season cereal grains (i.e. wheat, rye, oats, etc.) use more water per ton of dry matter than other hay crops. The most efficient crops in terms of tons of dry matter for water applied are the warm season annual grasses, for example sudangrass, sorghum-sudan, sorghum, and millet.

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