Cutting Height in Hay Fields: How Low Can You Go?

As you head out to cut hay this spring, take time to examine your cutting height. How does your height match up with the following recommendations?
Cutting Height in Hay Fields: How Low Can You Go? - Articles
Cutting Height in Hay Fields: How Low Can You Go?

New growth on alfalfa. Credit: Creative Commons CC0; Pixabay.com

While many parts of Pennsylvania have yet to take a cutting of hay in 2018, I was on a farm in Chester County on Monday where first cutting alfalfa/orchardgrass was made last week. As you head to the field this year, it’s important to pay attention to cutting height in your hay crop. One of our goals as farmers is to maximize our yield; however, cutting a hay crop too low can lead to several negative issues. The introduction of the disk-type mowers (discbines) allows for cutting very close to the ground. I’ve seen many fields that have been “scalped” right to ground level. This differs considerably from the older sickle bar mowers (haybines), whose technology required some level of stubble height remain. Stand longevity can be compromised when the crop is cut too low. As a general rule, alfalfa can be cut closer to the ground than our grass hay crops. We need to think about where energy reserves are stored in the crop. For alfalfa, carbohydrates are stored below ground in the taproot. Our grass hay crops store their energy above ground in the stem base or tillers. Frequent mowing at a close height will continue to deplete these energy reserves, resulting in stand longevity issues.

The second consequence for mowing too close to the ground is increased ash content of the forage. All forage has a natural ash content of approximately 6%. However, mowing too closely with disk mowers can add soil to the crop, and increase the ash content by as much as 10-12% (18% ash content in total analysis). If we all had table-top smooth fields, it would also be much easier to make a closer cut across all fields. However, things such as groundhog holes and the unevenness of fields can add to increased ash content of our harvested forage.

So, the million dollar question is how low can you go? The best answer is…it depends! The first question I always ask is – is it a solid stand or a mixed stand? If you have grasses involved, you must keep cutting height higher than a pure stand of legume, if you want to keep the grass in the stand. Keep in mind these are minimum recommendations; it’s okay to mow higher than the numbers below. Here are my minimum cutting height recommendations:

Alfalfa or Clover

  • 2” minimum. Some literature shows a cutting height of 1” will not reduce stand longevity, but remember the increased ash content issue. Also, keep in mind that frequent cutting at early maturity will continue to deplete carbohydrate reserves. One cutting of alfalfa should be allowed to reach the bloom stage each year.

Cool Season Grasses (Orchardgrass, Timothy)

  • 4”during the establishment year
  • 3” minimum during production years. This is where we see most of our stand longevity issues. Frequent cutting of cool season grasses at a low height will continue to deplete energy reserves.

Mixed stands

  • You must manage for the predominant species. Do you have a grass stand with some alfalfa, or an alfalfa stand with some grass?
  • Alfalfa with some grass: 2.5” minimum
  • Grass with some alfalfa: 3” minimum (if you want to keep the grass stand!)

Authors

Agronomy Hay & Forage Production Pesticide Education

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