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Better way to hay

Quality or quantity? When it comes to hay production, it’s not an either/or question. You want both.

Every year, we are asked by producers, “How can I make high-quality hay and lots of it?” There’s no sim­ple answer. That’s what Ben Buckner, one of our MFA customers in southwest Missouri, discovered when he started managing forage more attentively on his cow/ calf operation in Walnut Grove. He raises 275 acres of hay and produces an average of 750 bales each year to support his beef herd.

“I’ve come to realize there are better ways to do things than the way I’ve done them in the past,” Ben told us, emphasizing that proper harvest timing and fertilization are two of his most important consider­ations.

For the past few years, Ben has worked with his local MFA to soil sample his forage fields and create a custom fertilizer blend, rather than spreading a blanket 3-1-1 analysis as he had done for many years. Last year, he enrolled in MFA’s Nutri-Track precision pro­gram, which helps him manage soil fertility on an acre-by-acre basis. He plans to add more acres this year.

Following other recommended management practic­es, Ben said he sprays his hayfields for weeds as much as his budget will allow and tries to start harvesting hay as early as possible to maximize quality and quan­tity. He’s learned that achieving the best of both worlds in hay production requires multistep management that starts long before baling.

If you, too, want a closer focus on high-quality, high-quantity hay, we offer these management tips to help accomplish your goals.

Species selection and diversity

The type of forage you grow is a driving force behind the quantity of hay you produce. Here in the Midwest, we have plenty of forage choices, and over time we can make species changes that improve production and create an abundant supply for the majority of the year.

Fescue is the predominant forage in the Midwest and yields 1 to 3 tons per acre in a single cutting and 3 to 5 tons in two or more cuttings during the season. These totals are quite typical for any cool-season grass.

To increase tons per acre by species selection, look to alfalfa, bermudagrass, native warm-season grasses (NWSG) or summer annuals. Alfalfa and bermuda are both capable of 6-plus tons per acre in three to five cuttings per season. NWSG yields can average 4 to 5 tons per acre on the first cutting, depending on the species, and may yield a second cutting. Eastern gammagrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass all work well for haying operations. Sorghum-Sudangrass is an annual capable of two to three cuttings of 2-plus tons per acre.

We highly encourage you to have a portion of your farm in warm-season grasses. They’re harvested later than cool-season forages and can provide good-quality hay without increasing your workload during the busiest part of spring. Plus, native grasses are inherently more efficient with fertilizer than most other forages.

When it comes to quality, there is a fair amount of variabil­ity among various species. Legumes, as a rule, test higher in crude protein and digestibility than perennial, annual and native grasses. That being said, stage of maturity at cutting has the largest impact in crude protein, digestibility and energy in baled forage.

Grid soil sampling

Many growers use composite soil samples, which can get you started in the right direction. A composite soil sample gives you the average fertility and pH of the field. That means roughly half the field is above that mark and half is below. When you apply the recommended plant nutrients and lime, you meet the needs of half the field, but it won’t be enough for the other half.

Grid sampling through a program such as MFA’s Nutri-Track gives you a comprehensive look at the fertility and pH of every acre. Composite samples are taken on a 2.5-acre grid, which allows you to precisely apply nutrients and lime. Think about it as a report card with details on how you can maximize forage production more efficiently.

On the Buckner farm, Ben had seen an increase in sage grass in a hay field where he’d always applied the same fertilizer analysis. After working with MFA on soil testing and custom application, he said the sage grass has decreased and hay yields have increased.

“MFA has really helped me by making a fertilizer blend that is not only what my soil needs but also the most economical for my operation,” Ben said. “Most producers have limited acres, and Nutri-Track allows me to maximize every acre of my hay fields to be more efficient and productive.”

Variable-rate application of lime and fertilizer

The soil-test reports generated through Nutri-Track allow pro­ducers to use variable-rate technology to spoon-feed each acre with the proper amount of fertilizer and lime. As a result, you maximize production while more efficiently investing fertilizer dollars.

A proper diet of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulfur plays a key role in hay quantity and quality. Phosphorus, in particular, has many uses in the plant. One of the most im­portant is developing and maintaining a vigorous root system for uptake of nutrients and water. Potassium, too, has many essential functions in the plant, such as improving standability and water-use efficiency. In drought situations, low P and K levels indicate poor root systems that can’t hang on to what little water is available.

Variable-rate applications of lime are just as crucial to hay health. Having the correct pH on every acre makes all nutrients more available to the plant, therefore improving leaf matter, pal­atability and crude protein levels. Better palatability improves consumption and animal performance.

Weed control

It goes without saying that controlling weeds increases forage quality. This is especially true with the huge influx of toxic weeds we have seen in recent years, such as poison hemlock, horse nettle, perilla mint and nightshade. Unfortunately, most remain toxic when cut, baled and fed, so control of these weeds is a must.

Controlling weeds isn’t just about improving quality, howev­er. Long term, controlling weeds also has a huge impact on tons per acre. For every pound of weeds you terminate, you get 1 to 2 pounds of desirable forage in return. Start with a clean field and keep it clean for maximum yields.

Mowing height

Before harvest begins, be sure your cutter bar is set to the right height. For cool-season grasses, it should be at least 4 inches high, while alfalfa and bermudagrass can be cut at 2 inches without adverse effects. Annual and native warm-season grasses should cut to a height of 6 to 8 inches.

Growers often ask why we recommend leaving so much for­age in the field. The answer is two-fold: stand life and recovery time. Repeatedly cutting below the recommended height, or the growing point of the plant, decreases tillering and thins the stand, allowing more room for competitive weeds to encroach. Short cutting heights also remove much of the carbohydrate reserves and photosynthesis capacity, delaying recovery of the grass stand. Rapid recovery leads to a higher likelihood of a good, timely second harvest, and honestly, you really don’t add that many pounds to the harvest with shorter cuttings.

Harvest timing

Maturity stage at harvest is the most important factor influ­encing forage quality. As the crop matures, crude protein falls, fiber increases, digestibility decreases and palatability drops. Waiting for a great weather forecast usually results in more lost quality than a rain event would have caused. If rain is in the forecast, and you can time harvest correctly, precipitation right after cutting doesn’t cause nearly as much damage as rain on dry hay.

It’s a principle Ben Buckner says he tries to live by.

“We cut as early as weather will allow,” he said. “We realize that good-quality hay is not only better for the cows, but also you don’t have to feed as much to meet their nutritional needs.”

Cutting legumes in the bud to early bloom stage provides a great compromise of quality and yield. Cool-season grasses and NWSG should ideally be cut in the boot stage, which is very early in the reproductive stage of growth. Stem elongation is happening, and you can feel the seed head inside the stem, but it is not emerged yet.

Alfalfa is typically ready for the first cutting in late April or early May. Cool-season grasses such as orchardgrass, fescue and brome are typically in the boot stage by early to mid-May. When it comes to harvest timing, native warm-season grasses have a real advantage. Their first harvest, at the boot stage, is typically in mid-June. Not only are rainfall events a little further apart in June, but warmer temperatures encourage faster curing of the hay.

After baling, native grasses can be grazed rotationally, or a second cutting can be taken, as long as it’s before Sept. 1. Warm-season annuals should be cut each time they reach around 30 inches. Bermudagrass should be harvested at 15 to 18 inches. In cool-season grass pastures, you can generally take additional cuttings every 4 to 6 weeks after the first harvest.

Anything that shortens the time between cut­ting and baling helps to mitigate risk of weather losses. Using a mower/conditioner and tedder can be a great help in shortening that interval. Baling high-moisture hay (45-60%) and wrapping it for haylage is a practice that is expanding every year.

Preventing leaf loss during harvest is important. For this reason, alfalfa is frequently raked with the dew on. With the use of mold inhibitors, alfalfa can be baled at moistures approaching 30%. Likewise, grass hay should still be carry­ing some moisture when raked. Leaf shat­ter is unacceptably high when overly dry windrows are raked and baled. Use of net wrap greatly reduces loss of dry matter in movement and storage of the bale.

We realize that management of pastures and hay fields is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but putting these recommendations to use on your farm houls allow you to produce more - and better - hay on fewer acres than you have in the past and give you more forage for grazing this summer. 

If you need more information on forage management or are interested in MFA's Nutri-Track program, contact either of us: David Moore at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Landry Jones at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

David Moore is a MFA range and pasture specialist. Landry Jones is MFA's conservation grazing specialist. 

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