Making a Plan for Improved Hay Quality

This winter at the Forages at the KCA Symposium, I presented a summary of ten years of hay testing results from the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s forage testing program.  I would like to thank Kim Field from the KDA for allowing us to use this dataset and her long and faithful service to the forage and livestock industry in the Commonwealth.  This sample set included more than 14,000 hay samples.  The full presentation along with the other presentations given as part of this symposium can be viewed on the KYForages YouTube Channel.  The results of this analysis showed that only 12% of the samples tested would meet the energy requirements of a lactating brood cow (Figure 1).  As most of you know, body condition at calving is closely related to reproductive efficiency in cow-calf operations. 

Figure 1.  Proportion of hay samples tested at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture over a ten-year period (2007-17) that would meet the energy (total digestible nutrients) requirement of various classes of beef cattle.  Only 12% of these samples would meet the energy requirements of a lactating brood cow. 

Practical Considerations for Improving Hay Quality

I would like to challenge you to think about simple and practical ways to improve hay quality on your farm and then formulate a plan for implementing these practices.  Below you will find a list of practical considerations for improving hay quality.

Fertilize and lime according to soil test.  A balanced fertility program is essential for optimizing hay production.  Phosphorus, potassium, and lime should be applied according to soil test results.  Avoid using “complete” fertilizers such as 19-19-19.  In hay production, these fertilizers commonly over apply phosphorus and under apply potash.  More information on soil sampling can be found in AGR-252, Soil Sampling Hayfields and Pastures. 

Apply nitrogen early to promote rapid spring growth.  Applying 60-80 lb N/A in mid- to late March will promote early growth in hay meadows, resulting in higher first harvest yields.  

Harvest at the boot stage.  The single most important factor impacting forage quality is stage of maturity at harvest.  Hayfields should be mowed as soon as the grass reaches the boot-stage.  By making the first cutting in a timely manner, we will have time to make a leafy second cutting just prior to the summer months.

Stage of MaturityCrude ProteinDry Matter IntakeDigestibilityAverage Daily Gain
Late boot13.813.0681.39
Early bloom10.211.7660.97
Seed forming7.68.6560.42
Table 1. Impact of stage of maturity on the crude protein, dry matter intake, digestibility and average daily gain of stocker calves.

· Mow early in the day.  Some studies have shown that sugars are highest in late afternoon. However, in high rainfall environments like Kentucky, maximizing curing time is the highest priority.  Therefore, hay should be mowed in mid to late morning after the dew has dried off.      

· Use mower-conditioner.  Conditioning the stems allows for moisture to escape at a faster rate.  This shortens curing time and improves your chances of avoiding rain.  Conditioning is especially important on first cutting grasses, summer annual grasses, and legumes, all of which tend to have larger stems. 

· Set swath on mower-conditioner to the widest possible setting.  Maximizing the swath width decreases curing or wilting time by exposing a larger portion of the forage to direct sunlight. 

· Rake or ted at 40-50% moisture content.  Raking and tedding the forage while it is still pliable reduces leaf loss and maintain forage quality.  Once the moisture content is below 40%, leaf loss increases, especially in legumes such as alfalfa and clover.  

· Bale at 18-20% moisture.  Baling in this moisture range inhibits mold growth and reduces heating.  Avoid baling hay that is excessively dry due to high levels of leaf loss and hay that is above 20% moisture due to heating and potential hay fires (unless a preservative is used).

· Store under cover and off the ground.  Protecting hay from weathering helps to reduce dry matter losses and maintain forage quality.  Much of the weathering damage is a result of the hay bale wicking moisture up from the ground.  So, storing hay off the ground on a stone pad can greatly reduce deterioration.

· Do not cut hay fields too close.  If not properly adjusted, disc mowers can cut very close to the soil surface and this can cause significant as damage to cool-season grass stands.  Do NOT mow perennial cool-season grass stands closer than 3-4 inches. 

· Apply nitrogen following the first cutting.  Following a timely first harvest, apply 50-60 lb N/A to stimulate regrowth.  With adequate rainfall, a high quality second harvest can be made approximately 30 days after the first harvest. 

· Allow hayfields to go into summer with some regrowth.  Make sure to allow cool-season hayfields to go into summer with at least 5-6 inches of regrowth.  This will shade the crown of the plant, moderating its temperature, reduce soil moisture losses, and reduce germination of annual weeds.

· Apply nitrogen in late summer.  As the temperatures moderate in late summer and early fall, apply 60 lb N/A to stimulate fall growth.  This growth can be grazed or harvested as needed. 

· Allow plants time to replenish carbohydrates in the fall.  Make sure and time fall hay cuttings to allow stand to regrow and replenish their carbohydrates prior to winter dormancy. 

· Test hay and supplement accordingly.  Testing hay  provides the information needed to develop a supplementation strategy that will keep condition on cows and for marketing hay.  For more information on hay testing see AGR-257 Hay Sampling: Strategies for Getting a Good Sample.  

It is important to realize that the even the best made plans do not always workout as designed.  Extended periods of rainfall that delay harvest, pop-up summer showers that soak an almost perfect hay crop, and equipment failures can all throw a wrench into a well-designed plan.  The key to success is moving forward with a positive attitude that allows you to find your way around these roadblocks.  ~Dr. Chris Teutsch for Cow Country News.