May 09, 2013
The Best Spring ever! Well, so far.
Here in NorthEast Pennsylvania we have been experiencing the nicest "ease into" spring in memory. Usually we go from winter snow right into summer sweltering in a matter of a week! But this year we have had just the right amount of precipitation, sun and gradual warming that has made everything burst back to life and an unbelievable abundance of fruit blossoms that if they all produce fruit will make up for last years loss due to a freak slush storm.
But just as everyone is out planting their corn and greasing up their disc-bines for what seamed to be an earlier than usual first cutting…..the forecast for this weekend is showing dangerously close to freezing temperature overnight, with daytime temperatures in the mid 60’s! I guess if it was February and the Sap was still running, these temperature extremes would be great. But aright already! I’m ready for hay fever and tank tops, not the Flu and sweat jackets AGAIN!
Our pastures are about a week away from being ready to start rotational grazing for another season, and some of our hay fields are looking ready for 1st cutting already. For the last 2 weeks we’ve been reaching daytime high’s around 70 with overnight lows around 40-50. That’s why everything is growing so well.
But before you head out to knock down your first blade of hay, let’s look at some factors to consider when planning your early season hay making. Of all the factors affecting hay quality, stage of maturity when harvested is the most important and the one in which greatest progress can be made. As legumes and grasses advance from the "green" to "seed" stage, they become higher in fiber and lignin content and lower in protein content, digestibility, and acceptability to livestock. Making the first hay cut early permits aftermath growth to begin at a time when temperature and soil moisture are favorable for plant growth and generally increases total yield per acre, and most importantly, early cut hay results in high-quality feed and superior animal performance such as reaching that much needed average daily gain most producers are attempting to achieve.
After mowing, poor weather conditions can lower hay quality. Rain can obviously cause alfalfa (legume) leaf loss and can leach nutrients from plants during the dry-down process. Sunlight will also lower hay quality through bleaching and lowering Vitamin A content. Raking and/or tedding dry, brittle hay will also cause excessive leaf loss. Hay with an 80% moisture content must lose approximately 6,000 pounds of water to produce a ton of hay at 20% moisture. Crushing or "conditioning" at time of mowing will cause stems to dry at more nearly the same rate as leaves. Conditioning will usually decrease the drying time of leafy legume plants by about one day and can result in leaf and nutrient savings.
Hay handled in a rough manner before it gets to your livestock will lose an excessive amount of leaves. For the average small square bale (14 inches x 18 inches x 30 inches), about 29% of its total volume is contained in a 1-inch depth all around the bale. For large round bales, the outer 4 inches contains roughly 25% to 30% of its total volume.
Legumes such as Alfalfa & clovers are higher in quality than straight-up grasses, but within each group there can be a wide range of quality based on the level of plant maturity when harvested. When both grasses and legumes are harvested at the proper stage of plant growth, legumes are usually higher in total digestibility, rate of digestion, protein, and many minerals and vitamins. A mixture consisting of an adapted grass and legume is usually of high quality when properly managed. In addition, grasses can improve the drying rates of mixed stands compared to pure legume stands, sometimes by as much as 2 days! And as any "Grass-farmer" can attest to, every day in the field is another chance of rain diminishing your quality. Perennials, such as alfalfa, orchard-grass, timothy, fescue, Bermuda-grass, etc., are usually more economical for hay crops than annuals, although annuals, such as sorghum-sudangrass and ryegrass, can be fed with comparable feed to meat conversions if properly supplemented with mineral blocks.
Hay that is cut early, green, leafy, soft and has a pleasant odor will be of high quality. If you’ve ever gone to a hay auction at your local sale barn you’ve undoubtedly seen prospective buyers sticking their noses and sometimes their entire faces or heads into the center of a hay bale to get a whiff of that sweet smell of quality.
The most practical way to determine the nutrient content of hay is through forage nutritive analysis. It sounds like a fancy process, but it’s really not that complicated. The use of an instrument to obtain a core sample of hay has been one of the most reliable methods of getting a sample for nutritional analysis. Matching hay to different classes of livestock based on nutritional content of the forage and the requirements of the animal can lead to a more efficient livestock.