By: James Isleib, Michigan State University Extension
Forage production is all about two things: quality and tonnage. There are a lot of details involved, but basically farmers need acceptable quantity of forage at the quality required by their livestock. A great and very relevant quote from Michigan State University Extension’s forage specialist Kim Cassida is, “You can harvest high or low quality forage from any hayfield or pasture depending on harvest management.”
That idea gets to the heart of harvesting quality forage. The maturity stage of the plants to be harvested has a very important impact on the resulting hay or pasture quality. Earlier harvest or grazing results in higher protein and digestibility. Later harvest or grazing results in lower nutrition content of the feed but greater yield. So, yield per acre (tonnage) is also affected by harvest management, and there are trade-offs between quality and yield.
The type and quality of forage needed on any farm depends on the type of livestock being fed or the demands of the market for forages harvested for sale. Dairy farms need higher quality forages than most other livestock farms and within each farm various groups of cattle will require different quality of forage. High-producing lactating cattle require very high quality forage. Forage production on most Michigan dairy farms focuses on corn silage and alfalfa to meet that need. Dairy heifers and dry cows require less nutritious feed as compared to lactating cows. Dry and “steam-up” cows are often fed low-potassium forage to avoid metabolic problems.
Most beginners are not managing dairy herds and are more interested in hay and pasture suitable for beef cattle, horses, sheep and goats, and even swine and poultry. Producing high quality dairy forage may be present serious difficulties for an inexperienced farmer.
Stored forage may consist of dry hay in the form of small, square bales or large round or square bales at 14-18 percent moisture, lower for larger bales. Forage may also be ensiled as haylage at around 60-65 percent moisture by piling in a bunker and compacting to remove as much oxygen as possible, then covering with an airtight liner. Haylage may also be stored in ag bags, a more flexible system for smaller farms requiring specialized equipment.
Baleage is made with large bales, usually drier than haylage at around 40-55 percent moisture. The hay is formed into large round or square bales after partial wilting in the field, then wrapped either individually or in rows with airtight plastic. The hay is preserved very well as long as the plastic wrap remains intact. Baleage also requires some special equipment and works very well on small farms where higher quality hay is desired, fields are small and adequate drying time in the field for dry hay is a problem.
For beef cattle, horses and other species, a mixture of grass and legume is often the desired crop. If the percent of legumes, such as clovers, alfalfa or birdsfoot trefoil, is around 35-40 percent, enough nitrogen should be captured by the legumes and cycled through the soil to provide for the grasses that cannot produce their own nitrogen. Including legumes in grassy hay and pasture will also increase the protein content of the resulting forage. However, annual removal of forages without replacing potassium, phosphorus and other nutrients will result in depleted soils, incapable of maintaining acceptable forage stands and yields. In these instances, weeds tend to take over and crowd out the desirable grasses and legumes.
Forage testing is available through various dependable private companies to provide information on the protein, energy and other nutrient content of stored forage and other feeds. Check the MSU Extension Animal Agriculture website for details on the quality of hay needed for various species, including horses, beef cattle, sheep and other species. The MSU Forage Connection website is also an excellent resource for information on forage production in Michigan.
The MSU Extension 2019 Beginning Farmer Webinar Series includes a 1-hour presentation on “Quality Hay and Forage” on March 6, 2019. A recording of the session will be included on the MSU Extension Beginning Farmer Webinar Series website by June 2019. Check the Beginning Farmer Webinar Series website for free recorded presentations by MSU experts on hay production and grazing.
Quality is an essential concept with hay and pasture on your farm. Part 2 of this series will deal with the production aspects of hay and pasture for beginners. Part 3 will deal with hay storage.