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0507 FG: Test your tedding know-how: What you need to produce high-quality hay

Dennis Skibo Published on 02 October 2007

For many farmers, tedding is a necessary evil requiring extra time and money in terms of labor and fuel costs.

But a close examination of tedding and tedding equipment proves the process not only offsets the cost but also helps farmers produce quality hay that can be sold at a higher price.

Who needs a tedder?
Any farmer growing more than 15 to 20 acres of hay should have a tedder and use it regularly. However, tedding is practiced mostly on East Coast farms, throughout the Midwest and low-lying areas and at farms located near bodies of water. It’s rarely used in the Southwest because of low moisture levels.

Tedding offers many benefits to farmers and is advantageous for drying hay. Tedding hay after cutting mixes the crop to break up clumps of forage and distribute the hay over a field’s surface. These clumps of hay break up more effectively after two to four hours of wilting than immediately after mowing.

By distributing the hay over a greater surface area, you will increase the interception of the sun’s rays, which leads to quicker drying. Faster drying reduces moisture rot once hay is baled, and it eliminates the possibility of spontaneous combustion of bales due to bacterial decomposition of grass.

The amortized cost of tedding is about $150 per year on an average tedder with a 20-year use life. Compare this to the cost of a harvest lost to rain or rot because hay is not dry by using the following formula:

(Number of total acres harvested) x (2 tons per acre yield) x ($200 per ton sale price)

For example, a 20-acre harvest will produce 40 tons of hay. Multiply that by a cost of $200/ton, and the result is a loss of $8,000.Plus, the farmer must then go out and purchase alfalfa from someone else in order to feed his livestock at an additional $4,000 to $8,000.

Tedding helps prevent these losses by allowing farmers to bale hay while it still retains a slightly green tint (not completely sun-bleached or yellow), which consumers perceive as a more nutritious hay. This is a myth, as all hay has the same nutritional value, but due to buyer misconceptions, farmers often are able to command a higher price.

Selecting a tedder
Choosing the proper tedder and operating it correctly will ensure a cost-effective hay harvest and high quality forage. On average, tedders cost from $3,000 to $5,000 and can easily last 30 years with regular maintenance.

You will need a tedder that spreads your hay crop into a swath as wide as the cut of your mower. This aerates the swath and allows sunlight shining on the field to dry the hay.

The most common tedders are pull-types with two or four rotors. These are relatively simple machines with a low retail price. Larger six-rotor tedders are more expensive due to the folding requirements for transport, and they are usually fully mounted requiring a large tractor to operate.

Spin tedders provide gentle and quick hay management by distributing hay over all available areas of your field. Because of the spinning movement, it doesn’t matter which direction the hay is tedded. Spinning works three or more windrows simultaneously, so farmers will need to re-rake hay into windrows afterward to bale it.

Spin tedders may have up to seven tines per rotor. More tines equals a more even distribution of hay with less clumping. Plus, each arm takes smaller “bites” so the tedder is less likely to damage the hay via leaf shatter.

Another variety of tedder, a fluffer tedder, does not move the windrow and only slightly changes its width. Fluffing is best done in the opposite direction of the cut and is most useful for increasing hay’s drying rate after heavy rain.

A fluffer tedder has a parallel rake bar that moves the hay rearward and upward. It flips and fluffs the hay while keeping it piled up in the windrow, which results in a windrow that allows air to move through it for improved drying.

The best time to ted
It’s essential to ted hay after the first cut in the spring and the last cut in the fall due to the low angle of the sun, ground moisture and morning dew collection. Sometimes it can be skipped midsummer, but usually high summer humidity and the threat of thunderstorms make tedding necessary.

Tedding can be used anytime during field curing, and it typically can reduce your field-curing time by up to 12 hours. Some experts indicate tedding can increase hay drying rates by 20 to 40 percent in certain areas.

Initial tedding should be performed after a brief wilting period following a morning cutting while the hay is still moist (two to four hours). In very damp conditions, tedding may need to be done immediately after cutting. A second pass is usually done the next day, and the hay is raked and baled that afternoon.

Some farmers use tedders to spread a narrow swath formed by the mower-conditioner over their entire field surface. When this is done immediately after mowing, the average field curing time can be reduced up to two days compared to drying in a narrow swath. Additionally, tedding may provide more uniform drying, so wet spots in the swath are reduced.

When tedding is done on a relatively wet crop (above 50 percent moisture), the resulting crop loss is less than 3 percent. If you wait to ted until later in the drying process, your crop loss can approach 10 percent or more.

Preventing leaf shatter
Any time farmers touch hay with machinery they can damage it. This is why many farmers choose not to ted. In fact, one of the most frequent complaints stemming from improper tedding is leaf shatter. As hay matures, the leaves and small stems become more brittle. To preserve leafiness, hay must be cut early and tedded when the plant is still moist.

Cut hay should have a moisture content of 15 to 17 percent after drying. Most farmers can estimate this number by simply feeling the cut plant and twisting it into a rope-like vine. There is also an electronic probe available for reading moisture levels in bales.

Tedding increases drying rates with only a 1 to 3 percent loss in yield when done carefully. Tedding performed on hay with less than 40 percent moisture, however, causes leaf losses; the lower the moisture percentage, the greater the losses. Tedding dry hay can result in losses of 20 percent or more.

When moisture content drops below 30 percent, leaf shatter increases exponentially. For best results, ted hay with 60-percent moisture content. If you wait until the hay reaches 50 percent moisture, tedding increases dry matter losses and doesn’t effectively increase drying rate.

Plan to ted legume crops such as alfalfa within four hours of mowing in order to decrease leaf shatter. Alfalfa’s nutritional properties are in its leaves, so leaf shatter will devalue the harvest. Leaf shatter is not as prevalent in grass crops, but the value of grass hay also is lower and may not justify the time and equipment expense to ted it.

Today’s farmers have many options in tedding equipment for drying hay. Informed tedder selection and careful operation will ensure rapid drying and high yield for a successful hay harvest.  FG

About the author: Dennis Skibo is the owner and president of Pequea Machine Inc., New Holland, Pennsylvania, a manufacturer of equipment for hay and forage management, manure spreaders and other related products. With more than 20 years of experience, Skibo is a seasoned veteran of the agricultural industry.

Dennis Skibo for Progressive Hay Grower