For Release May 27, 2003
Making Hay While The Sun Shines
by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent
Theories are wonderful fairy tales. In theory, it is easy to make good quality hay. You wait until the forage crop is at the proper stage, you cut it, let it cure to the proper moisture content and then bale it. Reality is another story however! The alfalfa is ready, but there is a chance for rain in the forecast in two days. It probably won't be ready to bale in two days, but I'd like to get the soybeans planted before it rains. I can swath the hay and risk getting it rained on and maybe get the beans planted before it rains. If the rain doesn't last too long the alfalfa shouldn't be too far past prime. Decisions, decisions, decisions!
If all you wanted to do was cut hay for bedding or mulch, then it wouldn't be a problem. You would wait until maximum weight had been achieved and then mow it. But most hay producers are looking for quality not just quantity. There is an inverse relationship between quality and quantity in forage crops. The longer a forage crop grows, the more weight it accumulates. However, the quality of the forage crop decreases as it grows. The crude protein is generally highest, well before it heads out or blooms. This is true for bromegrass, prairie hay, alfalfa or any other forage crop.
So the timing of the haying becomes very critical. We also know that once the hay is cut and on the ground, it's quality will be reduced if it is rained on. This is very critical with alfalfa. So do we cut it and risk getting it rained on, or let it stand until we have good rain free forecasts? Research out of Kentucky indicates that if you can delay cutting by no more than three days, to avoid a rain, then you should wait. But if the delay may be longer, then you are better off to cut it and risk getting it rained on. Those studies showed that generally, letting it stand three days past prime resulted in more quality loss than cutting it and letting it get rained on. Grass hays are not quite as sensitive to getting rained on as the leaves, the main quality component, stay attached better.
So when do you cut for maximum quality. It is my observation, that most producers cut all their forage crops a few days too late. The intent is good, but the realities of the entire farming operation end up delaying when the cut actually happens. For many producers, the hay crop is very important, but it takes second fiddle to other, seemingly more pressing, tasks.
With alfalfa, we should be ready to cut when those first blooms start showing up. Once one tenth of the plants are into bloom, quality starts to go down hill rapidly. Plus, most of us are pretty poor at determining when one tenth of the plants are in bloom. If you are starting to see blooms, cut!
Grassy forages, like bromegrass and native hay, are somewhat similar. Once the plant starts to bloom, it switches into seed production mode, and resources will be stripped out of the plant to produced seed. Crude protein in the plant starts to drop rapidly. Target full heading in bromegrass as the cut date. Don't wait for blooming as you'll probably miss it. With native hay, you have multiple species in bloom making the timing tricky. In the case of native hay, have all your hay cut and baled in the month of July. August is getting too late for quality hay or the health of the plants! Making hay is sort of like good comedy, it's all about the timing!
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