For Release July 10, 2005

Time to Make Hay While the Sun Shines!

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

Wheat harvest is barely a memory, the county fair will be here before the end of the month and that means there's only one thing to do; make prairie hay! Unfortunately, too many people wait too long into the summer to cut their prairie hay. As a result we have two less than great outcomes from this action.

Up until recently, those warm season native grasses were busy doing one thing; growing leaves. Leaves are the energy source that fuel the factory that stores up root reserves and ultimately produces seed. But now, things are changing. The plant has grown enough and now it's time to make some seeds. When this switch over happens, bad things occur to the quality of the plant.

During the vegetative growth phase, protein and digestibility are quite high. But as we move into July, both protein and digestibility start to drop rather quickly. We often use the magic number of 5% protein as a cut off point for cattle usable feed. Forages with less than 5% protein take more energy to digest than the animal gets back from it. And they don't eat as much. Now if you want them to lose weight that's fine, otherwise it's a problem. By the end of July, average prairie hay protein values are at or below that 5% level. That's bad result number one.

When you cut the native hay the first thing the plant is going to try to do, if there is adequate soil moisture, is regrow. To do this the plant has to rely on food reserves already stored in the roots. The plant needs those food reserves to make it through the winter and start growing aggressively next spring. After harvesting, it will take grass plants an average of six to eight weeks to grow enough leaves to restore all those root reserves. Sometime in mid September, as the days grow shorter and the night time temperatures start to cool down, those warm season grass plants start shutting down. So to be certain that the grass has time to recover we need to get the grass cut by mid July.

What happens in many cases, I believe, is that producers are trying to get a few more pounds of hay. But by waiting even two or three weeks later, they can actually end up harvesting fewer pounds of protein per acre and have hay that is only good for mulch or bedding. There's plenty of mulch hay available, there's a shortage of quality prairie hay.

Additionally, by continually cutting late in the season, you start leaving those hay meadows more open going into fall making it easier for undesirable weedy cool season grasses, like the annual bromes or jointed goatgrass, to move in and start taking over control of the pastures. These weedy grasses will also grow very aggressively early in the spring. And since the native desirable grasses didn't have time to fully restore all their root reserves they are slow to start growing in the spring and find it harder to out compete those aggressive cool season weeds.

You need to be putting up prairie hay NOW! Don't worry that you can maybe get a couple hundred more pounds of hay by waiting until early August. You don't need pounds of indigestible fiber, you need protein and digestible nutrients. You don't need to put more stress on hay meadows stressed by six years of funny weather. You need to concentrate on working with your native hay, not beating it over the head. Get busy and make some good hay while we've got hay making weather!



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