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Planning a successful hay program

Greg Cuomo Published on 10 November 2010
You may be wondering why winter would be a good time to discuss a hay management program. My experience is that a key to a successful hay program is planning.

Did you produce enough hay for this winter? It’s not too late to estimate how much hay you have stored and how you are going to use that hay. Was last year’s hay production adequate to meet your production goals? Was the quality what you wanted? How and where will you grow enough hay to get through next winter?

To start the planning process, list the acreage in each field you use for hay production. Then, estimate the production you got last year as tons of hay per acre. The kind and variety of forage and the fertilization of each field during the past year is also important. Estimate the amount of stored forage you will use this winter. Finally make a list of practices or changes you can make to help you achieve your production goals for next year.

This article will discuss some management ideas for a successful hay program. Before we start, there are two points to consider:

1. It costs little more to produce good hay than poor hay.

2. Forage plants are generally higher in quality when young than when mature (corn silage excluded).

There are several factors that are important to the production of high- quality hay:

• forage and harvest management

• rain between cutting and baling

• good baling, storage and feeding management

There is very little that can be done about when it rains, and baling, storage and feeding management are a topic for another article. What we can control is our pasture and harvest management.

The basics of growing ample amounts of high-quality hay are relatively simple – harvest at the proper stage of maturity and use a good fertility program.

By the proper stage of maturity, I mean when an acceptable compromise between yield and quality is reached. It is generally recognized that harvesting alfalfa between bud and early bloom and grasses at the boot stage are good benchmarks for getting both high quality and good yields from a hayfield.

However, depending on what animals you are feeding, proper harvest stage may change to meet your goals. Also, some forages are susceptible to injury if continually harvested at a certain growth stage (boot stage for smooth bromegrass, for example), so consult your local extension agent or forage specialist when planning your harvest management.

If you have a pretty good idea about when you want to harvest your forage, the next step is to grow the amount of forage you need. To target production, start with a soil test. If you have not soil tested your hayfields in the last two years, it’s time to do it. Otherwise you don’t know if low fertility or low pH is limiting forage growth.

Follow the soil test by applying the needed nutrients. A primary reason for lower-than-desired hay yields is low soil fertility. However, when applying fertilizer, keep in mind the golden rule of forage production: “for every dollar you put into a fertilizer program, you must make more than a dollar back.” If your yield goal is two tons of hay per acre, there is no need to fertilize for six tons of hay. Keep fertilizer and production records to help determine if extra inputs are profitable.

Our most common hay crop is alfalfa, and that is rightly so. It is a high-quality productive crop that is the backbone of many forage systems. A good fertility and harvest management program is essential to profitable alfalfa production. The management of alfalfa for hay is well documented. Therefore, at least for this column, I will focus on grass and grass/legume pastures for hay.

If other nutrients are not limiting plant growth, applying nitrogen to grass pastures will grow more forage. Yield response from additional nitrogen depends on many factors, including current soil fertility, soil type, rainfall, etc.

Often, however, forage yield can double with as little as 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre. However, if nitrogen is added and then forage gets overly mature before harvest, you have only used the additional fertilizer to grow more poor-quality hay. This will probably not be a profitable use of your dollar.

We almost never have a shortage of poor-quality hay. On the other hand, we always can use more high-quality hay. Using a fertility program to produce more high-quality hay can and often will be profitable.

One way to get the additional nitrogen to pastures is by the inclusion of legumes. Legumes add nitrogen to pastures, increase the productivity and intake potential of grass pastures, grow more during the summer than grasses and are high in protein. Legumes, however, have higher fertility requirements than grasses and low flooding tolerance.

With all those benefits of legumes, the question is why we don’t grow legume pastures? The answer is, we do – with alfalfa. However, there is a fair amount of risk and expense associated with alfalfa production, and grasses also have a lot of valuable traits.

Grasses can be grazed earlier and later than legumes, well-adapted grasses persist better, compete with weeds better and require less fertile soil (P, K, and pH) than legumes.

Grasses also tolerate a wider range of soil conditions (wet), tolerate trampling better and prevent soil erosion better than legumes. However, cool-season grasses have a lower intake potential and do not provide as much summer forage as legumes. They also require nitrogen fertilization for high levels of production.

One way to get the best of both legumes and grasses in a hay pasture is to plant them together. The management of mixed pastures takes skill, but also combines the advantages of both forage types. A grass-legume mix harvested at the proper stage of maturity can produce high-quality hay. Keeping good records of acreage, production, and cost can provide valuable information when considering interseeding legumes into grass pastures in the future.

Advantages of a grass-legume mix for hay production over alfalfa alone include reduced drying time and lodging, a decreased degree of winter injury, reduced weed encroachment and soil erosion, and longer stand life. However, persistence of legumes has been a problem in both pastures or hayfields. Good harvest management, including not harvesting in early fall, and a good fertility program can make for a successful grass-legume hayfield.

The real benefit from a good hay management program is reducing your feed cost. Higher-quality hay can help meet the nutritional needs of animals with less supplementation (less cost).

Have your hay tested and feed higher-quality hay to animals with higher nutritional needs and lower-quality hay to animals with lower nutritional needs. Knowing and understanding the nutrient requirements of your animals for the stage of production they are in will help avoid overfeeding or underfeeding.

In summary, there are two key points to growing a high-yielding, high-quality hay crop: maturity at harvest and fertility. Within the two ideas there are several management steps to help you plan a hay program:

• Target the yield and quality you need from your hay fields.

• Soil test and apply nutrients as needed to meet your yield goals, and consider using legumes as a source of nitrogen and high-quality forage.

• Harvest at the proper stage of maturity.

• Forage test so that you can target your hay feeding.  FG

—Excerpts from University of Minnesota Extension website

A good fertility and harvest management program is essential to profitable alfalfa production. Photo by FG staff.

Greg CuomoAssociate Dean
University of Minnesota