By: Stacey Spenst, PAg, Regional Forage Specialist, Kindersley
For many producers, making hay is a feat that plays a pivotal role in the success of their operation and its ability to remain viable throughout the change of seasons. Making hay often occurs with two main goals in mind; maximizing quantity and quality. Finding the balance between high yields and maintaining a strong nutritional factor can be tricky when deciding the optimum time for cutting your forages for hay.
Determining an end use for the hay will be the first step in determining when to cut for hay making. Animals with a higher nutritional requirement, such as dairy cattle, will require higher quality hay versus animals with a lesser nutritional requirement, like dry cows. Legume and grass forages typically are higher in protein and digestibility at earlier vegetative stages and tend to decline in quality as they mature. Conversely, dry matter will accumulate the longer the plant remains actively growing, increasing tonnage and quantity yields; Quality decreases with maturity and quantity increases. It is important to consider these relationships once it has been determined what quality of hay is required for animals to perform at maximum production.
For most cow/calf producers, maximizing yields before losing feed quality is typically the goal when determining optimum cutting stages. The intersection between maximum yield and maximum quality usually occurs at 10 percent bloom stage on alfalfa and late boot to early heading stages for grasses. Alfalfa-grass mixed stands should be cut based on the alfalfa stage of maturity.
Hay quality and quantity will also be impacted during the hay making processes after cutting has occurred. Hay freshly cut will begin to lose quality immediately because the plants continue to respire until dried, utilizing stored starch and sugar. Rain will also cause an affect by allowing for excess respiration, soluble nutrients to be leached from the plants and leaf losses may occur.
Cutting stage, dry down times, and weather are just a few factors impacting hay quality and quantity. All of these variables make it impossible to visually estimate the quality of the hay, making feed tests an invaluable tool in creating well balanced rations for livestock. The Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, Central Testing Laboratories and Saskatchewan Peavey Mart locations are working together to promote the importance of feed testing though the Saskatchewan Hay Harvest Challenge. To participate in the Saskatchewan Hay Harvest Challenge, or for more information regarding hay harvesting, contact your Regional Forage Specialist.