Hey! What About the Hay?

Posted: May 7, 2013

The forage industry is the major agricultural enterprise in Pennsylvania and the Northeast.

Pennsylvania’s 2.1million acres of hay ranks us #10 in hay production in the nation and consists of alfalfa on slightly over 800,000 acres producing more than half our total production.  Forage crops constitute the main feed component in the diets of our livestock. High quality forages literally makes the difference in economics of dairy and livestock production.

Maturity is the single most important factor (of at least a half dozen factors) affecting forage quality.  Remarkably, at this the end of the first week of May, and little if any hay has been harvested across the state! Production and supplies from last season were tight. A cooler and drier start this year (“normal” or otherwise) has limited production to this point in most areas. So, now the question “What about the hay?” may be one of the most important that we can ask.

The timing of first cutting -especially critical with grasses- should be carefully considered with errors hopefully towards too early rather than too late. In the May Issue of Crop Soil News, author Tom Kilcer suggests using alfalfa as the predicator. In order to obtain high “dairy-quality” forage (based on the appropriate NDF and fiber digestibility), grass quality begins to peak when nearby alfalfa is 15 inches tall.

In mixed stands (50% alfalfa), cutting should begin when the alfalfa is 24 inches tall. And when pure alfalfa stands are 30 inches tall, the harvest window is wide open. In addition, he introduces a newly developed Cornell University system that allows the producer to tailor harvests for specific farms and specific fields. The GMT-2 Alfalfa-Grass NDF Estimation tool can be downloaded and data entered will lead to an estimate of days until peak quality is reached.

Finally, with our recent week or more of good weather apparently due to change soon, forage harvest determinations will only become more critical. However, as most forage producers realize, successfully obtaining high quality forage is well worth the effort. In addition to carefully determining the best timing for optimum quality, the harvest method has a lot to offer too. One of the more recent developments involves the use of wide swath mowing in an effort to optimize and preserve forage quality by ensiling the same day - which also saves precious time.  Along with the management for obtaining highest quality forages by proper timing, the proper timing decision also helps correctly set the clock for later cuttings, leading to further optimization of production and quality. Similarly, effective management of stubble height (leaving several inches of stubble) aids in both wilting/drying of the forage, but also results in quicker recovery and subsequent production, and is healthier for the stand. So hey! Hay is important, let’s do it right!

Contact Information

Joel Hunter
  • Educator Field and Forage Crops
Phone: 814-333-7460