Hay, good lookin’: How to put up quality bales this summer
It’s good to make hay while the sun shines, but there’s a lot more to putting up a quality bale than pulling out the Ray Bans® and sunscreen. Plant maturity, moisture content and weather conditions all play a significant role in the balancing act producers must juggle when deciding when to fire up the swather.
According to Montana State University Extension publications, three main questions should be considered when producing hay: What is the optimal moisture range for your type of bale? How can you best achieve this ideal moisture? And what is the best maturity for harvest?
Moisture is a critical consideration in quality bales. Too much moisture causes browning – which in turn can trigger heating and combustion. It also causes molding, which consumes nutrients in forage and creates toxins and spores that cause animal health problems. Baling too dry results in the shattering of leaves, which contain the majority of the plant’s nutrients. Alfalfa hay in particular contains 70 percent of the total digestible material in the leaf.
As bales get bigger, denser and heavier, moisture percentage needs to be lower. For example, a small square bale weighing 60 pounds can be put up around 18 percent, whereas a 4-foot by 4-foot weighing 2,500 pounds should be closer to 14 percent. As a general rule, experts at Montana State University Extension recommend always baling below 20 percent moisture and above 12 percent.
Although producers may not need the levels of precision collected in research trials, understanding the process of forage drying helps apply science to art.
Fresh-cut forage typically contains around 80 percent moisture. Three phases of drying follow, taking the plant material down to the recommended lower than 20 percent mark. First is stomatal loss – this is where the plant cells respirate water. This phase involves the cells converting plant sugar to water and CO2. A dry environment is ideal for this first stage immediately after cutting. Delayed drying in this stage causes the plant to convert too many sugars and lose nutrients. The second phase is moisture loss from the leaf surface and stem. Conditioning the hay – the mechanical act of crimping or slightly crushing the forage through the swather, expedites this phase.
The third phase is loss of tightly held water – mostly from stems. Conditioning, which also scratches the waxy cuticle, is most critical to this stage, which takes the forage down to the final required moisture level.
When considering plant maturity in timing of cutting, there are two factors to evaluate: quality and yield. As legumes and grasses move through the maturity stages of vegetative, prebud (or boot for grasses), bud (or heading), and bloom, protein decreases but fiber and yield increases. Hitting the ideal balance of quality and yield is key, with most science saying to aim for the prebud or bud stage to get the maximum combination.
Sharla Sackman, rancher and Extension agent in the highly cattle-dense Prairie County in Eastern Montana, says she looks at hay through the lens of a cattle producer. “In raising cows, the two things we are trying to look at are protein and energy values,” she says. “Anything that we can do in raising hay to make those two values higher is desirable.”
A study by the University of Nebraska compared crude protein levels from the four maturity stages. At the vegetative stage, CP was 23 percent, resulting in an efficiency level of 7:1, compared to late bloom at the other end of the spectrum, with CP at 14 percent and an efficiency level of 16:1.
However, Sackman says that for cow-calf operations, yield may be more important than quality, compared to a dairy operation or for growing animals on feed. For producers selling hay, quality does impact prices, and the USDA offers hay guidelines for both alfalfa and grass.
Sackman notes that, for most growers, putting up quality hay usually becomes a test of the art not the science.
“Producers mostly know how to put hay up right – the challenge is balancing the science with the weather,” she says. “What should you do if the hay is ready but there is potential rain in three days? Or what if high winds might hit the raked windrows?
“The method you might know, the reality of mother nature is the challenge,” she says.
Rain is the critical foe of downed hay, with its damage being leaching, respiration and leaf loss. Leaching is the loss of soluble carbohydrates, or energy, from forage. Crude protein is not water soluble, so protein levels are not affected by rain. Low intensity rains over a longer period of time are actually more damaging than a high intensity, shorter duration of the same amount. Additionally, rain that occurs right after cutting is not as detrimental as rain that occurs later in the drying process. Iowa State University found that for every inch of rain on downed alfalfa, dry matter yield and digestibility dropped 5 percent to 10 percent, with the highest losses occurring when the rain was spread over the longest duration.
Ben Muggli is one of the owners of Muggli Brothers Inc. in Miles City, Mont. He and his family raise alfalfa hay to grind into cake pellets, which they market to a multi-state region. He says he respects the science, but much of raising good quality hay comes down to experience and “feel.”
“It really relies on a lot of things – it’s no different than any other farming or ranching practice,” he says. “When it all clicks it works real good.”
He said he’s had times when he and his family have put up 1,000 tons of hay from turning on the swather to moving the bales out of the field in just three days. “But man, everything really has to be just right.”
It’s when things don’t go right, like a lingering summer rain or a late third cutting with winter looming, that the decisions come into play, Muggli says. He says sometimes those decisions involve giving up a little – perhaps in moisture content or leaf loss – to simply get the hay off the field.
“Most of the time putting up good hay involves walking to the field, feeling the plants, seeing what the sun is doing and the wind is doing – knowing when you need to go and when you need to wait,” he says.
To everything there is a season. A time to swath and a time to bale. But, hopefully, not a time to put out hay yard fires or fork windrows from the irrigation ditch.