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Forage Harvest and Marketing

Pricing your alfalfa

Establishing a price for standing hay can be a challenge because markets are local and supply and demand can vary greatly from year to year. The simplest way to determine the price of standing hay is to sum the costs of cutting and baling and subtract it from the baled hay price. At times, the sales agreement will also include a risk deduction of five to 15 per cent.

The baled price of hay for your area can be found:

  • In local papers; and
  • Online in classified websites.

These listings may also have some standing hay advertised in your area.

The cost of cutting and baling hay depends on the yield of the hay as well as the equipment being used. As a rule of thumb, it costs roughly between $30 and $35/ton (between $34 and $39/tonne) to cut and bale hay; however, the actual cost can vary depending on a broad range of factors.

The price of hay will also vary based on content. Pure alfalfa hay will generally garner a higher price than a mixture of alfalfa and grass. The price can also vary depending on quality. Once the hay is baled, sampling and testing the feed is the best way to determine the quality. The lab results from a feed test will provide useful information to both seller and buyer. Bartering by the buyer is usually based on quality, which in turn is largely determined by harvest timing.

Deciding when to cut alfalfa is based on three factors:

  1. The desired harvest quality;
  2. The expectation of a second cut; and
  3. The weather.

Desired Harvest Quality

Desired harvest quality will vary depending on the end user. Dairy and feedlot operations will generally require higher quality than cow/calf producers. Knowing who your end user is prior to marketing enables you to adjust harvest dates to optimize quality vs yield for a particular market.

For example, if selling into the dairy or feedlot market, harvest should occur just before flowering when the quality of an alfalfa crop is at its highest. But since, forage yield hasn't been maximized at this stage a higher price per ton may be required to compensate for the lower yield. On the other hand, if marketing to cow/calf producers, harvest can be delayed to 10 to 25 per cent flowering when protein and forage yield is maximized and the extra yield can make up for a lower price.

Second Cut

If you're expecting a second cut from your alfalfa, consider that alfalfa needs about six weeks of good growing conditions before a second cut and six weeks before the first killing frost. Generally, the first killing frost occurs in late September (earlier in the north and later in the south). Therefore, first cut should occur in late June or early July, and the second cut should occur sometime in early to mid-August.

If the first cut is delayed by a few weeks, it may be prudent to forgo a second cut to allow root reserves to replenish before freeze up. The decision will depend largely on growing conditions and moisture conditions at the time of the first cut.

Weather Factors

The weather should also be considered in your decision about harvest timing. Watch the long-term forecast and try to find a reasonable harvest window. Choosing the perfect conditions for harvest can be a challenge, but the advantage of optimum forage quality at the desired harvest stage can be lost if the windrow becomes saturated.  

Like alfalfa, grass hay quality is at its highest during the vegetative stage and decreases once flowering begins. Once flowering initiates, crude protein can decrease by 25 to 50 per cent. Often, however, the yield hasn't reached its potential by the flowering stage, and yield may be lost at the expense of quality. For many grasses, maximum yield is at, or immediately after, the bloom stage. Again, try to watch the weather forecast and find a reasonable harvest window. Baling poor dry hay is better than baling good-quality hay under wet conditions.

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