Perhaps I should preface this list with a caveat — the best way to make perfect hay is to ensure it doesn’t get rained on. And now that we’ve all stopped belly-laughing we can get down to the business of making hay in a more realistic setting. I’ve listened to Dr. Dan Undersander, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, talk about achieving quality hay more than once, and each time he brings up the fact that Canadian farmers rarely can count on three to four rain-free days in a row to get hay in rain-free. What does that mean? It means the farmer who can get the crop to dry-down fastest conserves the most quality and, likely, yield.
Last week, I attended the first annual Manitoba Hay and Silage Day at Neepawa, Man., put on by Manitoba, Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives and the Manitoba Forage Council, to learn more about mastering the art of hay making. Here’s the five points I pulled from Dr. Undersander’s presentation:
Cut hay at the right time: This is one of those objective points, but is really the most important. For dairy producers this means the bud stage of alfalfa (or boot stage of grass), but for beef producers, top yield with adequate quality comes just slightly later, at early bloom or very early heading. Not sure where the relative feed value of your alfalfa sits after first cut? Use the PEAQ stick to estimate it and help make the cut timing decision easier.
Cut a wide swath: A wide swath is one that is at least 70% of the cutter bar width. But, why, you may ask? Because conditioners or crimpers only work to help dry-down stems, but leaves hold most of the nutrients you’re after and contain high levels of water. Crimping won’t help leaves dry, but increasing the swath width will. Extra bonus: respiration (read: energy) losses are lower in a wide swath.
Invest in some extras (but do your homework first): Re-cutter bars on balers cost a bit more for the unit and require slightly higher operating costs. The trade-off? Less wasted hay and higher rates of gain in cattle due to increased intake. Work the numbers and the added cost becomes an investment. Also, wrapping and mold inhibitors absolutely have their place, especially when the weather goes against you (see my first point, re: not enough rain free days in a row), though not all mold inhibitors are created equal, and wrapping can sometimes cause more harm than good. Propionic acid is a good choice that actually works (more on its use here). Bale wrapping also has its place for making haylage, but too few wraps or cheap plastic won’t necessarily decrease losses, thus just costing more. Find a good factsheet on this here.
Minimize wheel traffic, remove bales quickly: Would you drive all over your newly emerged canola field? How about wheat? No? Then why is a hay field a highway in comparison? Obviously you can’t avoid driving on the field completely, but Undersander says that the most damage occurs to alfalfa crowns and new shoots shortly after the hay is cut and baled. His advice? Pick bales immediately after they are made — even if it’s just to the side of the field. Silage producers get more from their acres in part because they go over the field only once; wheel traffic is that damaging. What’s more, if bales are left to sit, no growth occurs underneath them either.
Fertilize, fertilize, fertilize: Good news. Hay — be it grass or alfalfa or a mix — responds incredibly well to fertilizer. Bad news, hay needs far more fertilizer than you think. While alfalfa or other legumes will fix their own nitrogen, phosphorus needs must be met in order to make full use of the N. There’s more good news, though. First off, hay fields are a great place for manure applications, and phosphorus can be applied all at once (within environmental farm plan guidelines) and still offer benefits in a four or five year alfalfa stand. Just how much does the hay crop need? Watch the video below with Glenn Friesen, provincial forage specialist with MAFRI. He explains rates, forms and timing for fertilizing hay crops.