Hay Harvest Considerations

To maximize hay forage quality, grass hay needs to be swathed by the end of the boot stage before the seed starts to emerge from the leaf sheath. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Feed costs represent 60% of your annual cow costs, according to Extension specialists, which means the decisions you make during hay harvest are critical to your operation’s success.

Harvested forage is the most common source of stored feed used by cow-calf producers, and surveys indicate 86% of harvested hay is used on a producer’s own ranch. Therefore, hay harvested at the proper stage of plant growth and undamaged by weather provides nutrients for your cows at a minimal cost compared to other high-quality supplemental feeds.

With the start of hay season on many ranches, now is the time to re-evaluate your strategies to optimize forage quality. Extra care now can mean better quality hay that will provide better nutrition for your herd next winter. Plant maturity is the primary factor impacting forage quality, says Pat Keyser, professor and director of the Center for Native Grasslands Management at the University of Tennessee.

As plants get older and pass the boot stage of growth they start to accumulate more fiber, which negatively impacts cattle intake and decreases the nutritional benefit of the hay.

“Cattle can starve to death on poor-quality hay,” he says. Ranchers pay the price for poor-quality hay through cattle with lower body condition and decreased reproductive efficiency.

“It won’t move through the rumen because there’s too much fiber, and they’re just not extracting enough nutrition,” Keyser says of forage that is too mature.

The late boot phase is when Keyser and Daren Redfearn, Extension forage specialist for the University of Nebraska, both recommend cutting a hay stand.

“There is not an accumulation of much yield after that point,” Redfearn explains.

The boot stage occurs when the seed head is starting to come out of the leaf sheath of most forages. The plant is in full seed development at the end of the boot stage. Nearly every hay acre is capable of growing quality forage if managed and harvested timely, says Joe Lawrence, forage systems specialist at Cornell University.

“I would encourage folks to start thinking of every acre and cutting as a different opportunity,” Lawrence says.

Weather is always a challenge, so be prepared to adjust plans to match forage conditions. Know how and when to adjust equipment settings to capture the most value from your forage. This can mean mowing in wider swaths for quicker dry-down, or using alternative harvesting methods, such as bagging haylage to speed up harvest.

“There are many opportunities to use one of the more intensive harvesting systems,” Lawrence says. The key is to know which method will work best for forage mix.

Every acre and cutting can make quality forage. The first cutting of hay on a field holds the greatest opportunity to harvest top-quality forage.

Lawrence says it is better to focus on obtaining quality forage from all the acres rather than pinpointing particular fields for a certain class of cattle. Predetermining a field as producing lower forage quality hay is a lost opportunity.

If you’re able to harvest enough high-quality forage in the first or second cuttings, Lawrence says remaining cuttings can be focused on yield.

Unseasonably cool weather in the central Plains this season means the growing season might be delayed about two weeks, but Redfearn says to ignore the calendar.

“I don’t know that forage growers need to adjust their plans yet based on what’s happened. They need to watch the plants, not the calendar,” he says.

This year is expected to be the second lowest hay crop since 1906 by USDA. To find out more on the hay harvest, visit www.Drovers.com/2018-hay-acreage