Seminole Crop E News

Agricultural News for Farmers and Agribusiness in SW Georgia

Southeastern Hay Contest…Quality Hay Production

Posted by romeethredge on September 4, 2015

For more Hay contest info….Hay Contest


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Harvesting and Curing High Quality Hay

Steve MorganHarris County CEC

High-quality forage is the key to reducing feed costs. This is done by harvesting a high-yielding, good-quality crop of forage.  The goal of hay production is to provide a feedstuff that meets the nutritional needs of the livestock. Unfortunately, changes in the weather can ruin even the best laid plans.  As a result, hay production can be very risky. However, understanding some best management practices can give the manager the advantage.

High-Quality Hay
Hay quality is a term that can mean different things to different people. For some, the most important factors are how it looks, smells and feels.  Others only look at price. In this article, the focus will be on the nutritional value of the hay. It is hay that is high in total digestible nutrients (TDN) and dry matter intake (DMI).   TDN is a measure of the energy contained in the forage.  DMI is a measure of how much forage is consumed by the animal.  There are many factors that can affect TDN and DMI.  One of the most important factors affecting TDN and DMI is harvest timing.

Timing is Everything
Harvest interval is a major factor affecting the yield and quality of a hay crop. Keeping in mind that forage species is important, proper harvest timing of low-quality forage will beat improper harvest timing in a high quality species. Bermudagrass hay harvested at 4 week intervals can result in higher quality forage than alfalfa that is harvested in the late bloom stage.  Plant maturity is crucial because more fiber develops in the plant as it gets older.  As a result, the digestibility of the forage declines rapidly. Highly lignified forages remain in the rumen longer because of their slow rate of digestion, decreasing DMI, which reduces animal performance. The older the crop gets, the higher the yield.  However, there is a point where the amount of digestible dry matter harvested per acre no longer increases.    It is critical to harvest the hay crop whenever the forage reaches the target maturity. Delaying a harvest beyond the recommended maturity stage will result in forage that is less digestible and less capable of being consumed at an acceptable rate of intake. Understanding that the quantity may be reduced, harvesting slightly earlier than the recommended maturity is an option and may be advisable if the weather forecast is favorable.

As a rule of thumb beef cattle will consume approximately 2.5 pounds of dry matter per 100 pounds of body weight per day.  Therefore, if you put a 1000 pound bale of hay out in a pasture for 20 mature cows and the cows weigh around 1000 pounds each, it should last approximately 2 days. (25 pounds of dry matter intake per cow X 20 cows = 500 pounds per day).  If the bale sits in the field longer than 2 days, either the cows are finding more desirable feedstuffs or there could be problems with digestibility in the hay.

Cure as Quickly as Possible
During the summer months, there is a high risk of rain damage to the hay crop. One rain shower of about 1 inch on tall fescue hay during curing can cause yield losses of greater than 5%.  Also, it can reduce TDN up to 6%, and reduce DMI by as much as 9%. The losses occur because much of the nutrition in the plant is water soluble and can be removed by leaching.

High levels of humidity often result in additional days needed to dry a hay crop to the moisture level that is safe for hay storage (15-16% for large round or big square bales; 17-18% for small square bales). There is a good chance in this area that a rain event will occur during any given five-day stretch. To make matters worse, the high humidity and the condensation of dew that regularly occurs can actually cause the moisture of partially-cured hay to increase overnight. Consequently, it is critically important to dry hay as quickly as possible. The five following management practices will help dry hay as quickly as possible:

  1. Take advantage of good drying conditions. Even if the weather forecast projects good drying conditions in the 7-day forecast, the chances are fairly high of afternoon showers.  If the decision is made to harvest, begin cutting the crop immediately before or soon after the dew is off. By waiting to the end of the day to cut, the drying time is pushed back by a full day or more. This exposes the curing hay to more risk of weather-damage.
  2. Use a conditioner.  A successful harvest of high quality forage starts with the proper use and set-up of the mower-conditioner.  A key factor in achieving a high quality harvest is productivity – getting the crop cut and off the field as fast as possible to avoid weather damage. The conditioning system on the mower-conditioner is intended to crack, strip or split the plant stem.  This reduces the period of time the crop is on the ground and exposed to damage from rain.  Studies have shown that the drying rate of a hay crop is 15-25% better when a conditioner is used.  There are two basic types of conditioners: impeller (sometimes called flail) and roller-crimper.  The impeller conditioner uses v-shaped flails that whip around on a rotating drum. The flails in a impeller-type mower conditioner are not knives. They do not cut the hay; they are designed to strip some of the waxy coating off the hay to allow faster drying.  The intermeshing rubber rolls of a roller crimper conditioner crush the stems and leaves of the forage crop.  Crimping and crushing newly cut hay promotes faster and more even drying.
  3. Use the right conditioner. Flail mowers are generally better for bermudagrass and tall fescue.  Roller-crimper conditioners are better for thick stemmed species like pearl millet or sorghum x sudan grass hybrids and legumes like alfalfa and clover.  Avoid the use of a flail mower on leaf crops.  This will help prevent leaf losses during the harvesting process.
  1. Spread the windrow out wide. The hay producer’s best friend is sunshine.  Sunlight speeds up drying.  Therefore, it is important to spread the windrow out wide to get equal drying time on the entire crop. For alfalfa and other legumes, (leaf crops) however, wheel traffic over top of the swath may increase leaf losses. In this case, it may be best to lay the forage in a narrow swath at first, and then use a tedder to spread the forage out.
  1. Use a hay tedder. A hay tedder inverts, stirs, and spreads out the hay crop.  It is used after cutting and before windrowing, and uses moving forks to aerate the hay thus speeding up the process of hay-making. The use of a tedder allows the hay to dry (“cure”) better.   The proper use of a hay tedder can substantially increase the drying rate of a hay crop (by 15-30%).  Tedder hay on the morning after the crop was cut.  However, if large clumps of forage pile up behind the cutter, it may be necessary to tedder the hay shortly after mowing.  It is usually best to complete all tedding operations before late morning because running the tedder after the dew has completely dried or when the forage is too dry can lead to excessive leaf shatter and losses.

Hay can be a low-cost, high-quality feed. However, proper management is necessary to achieve this goal.  Harvesting at the proper stage of growth, using the proper mower and correctly drying or curing the hay will help optimize forage quality.

For more information on forage management issues, visit our website at If you have additional forage management questions, visit or contact your local University of Georgia Cooperative Extension office by dialing 1-800-ASK-UGA1.

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