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The hay you sell and the hay you keep

Posted 1/7/2015 2:01pm by Leaf Myczack.

Haymaking serves three main purposes: the first to conserve excess forage during the spring flush for use when forage growth is slower or non-existent, secondly, to produce a cost effective, nutritional livestock feed, and thirdly, it allows feeding without having to let the herd trample around soft, wet pastures in wintertime. Because we are a 100% grass fed operation, we require good quality hay to feed our livestock throughout the winter months. 

By early January, the heart of mid-winter, we should be able to accurately judge the nutritional worth of our haymaking efforts from the previous summer as this is the sole forage for our overwintering cows.  Cattle farmers who have to feed a grain supplement to boost the daily nutritional intake of their herd, are able to mask the shortcomings of feeding poor quality hay. If one has to feed a grain supplement they didn't grow themselves to compensate for poor quality hay, then any chance of producing a profit from one's farm is greatly diminished.

Our farm is still in a restorative process to bring back depleted pastureland, and as a result, we cannot produce enough quality hay for ourselves. That forces us to buy hay from our farmer neighbors which we would rather not do for many varied reasons. Chiefly among them is the poor quality of first cutting hay available. Because of our shorter growing season in the mountains, second cutting hay is almost always better quality since it doesn't have much opportunity to over-ripen as cooler weather and shorter days prevail. It doesn't have to be this way. Two cuttings of high quality hay are easily accomplished in an "average weather" growing season. For this to happen though, requires a fundamental shift in practice to return the craft of haymaking into an environmental and significant economic asset.

When should one cut hay to produce the highest nutritional quality hay? While this information is readily available from numerous academic and agricultural research sources, it is still problematic to find quality cut hay in our farm-based county here in SW Virginia. The most common deficiency in local haymaking is leaving the grass stand to over-mature before cutting. For years I puzzled over why farmers cut the first cutting so late, long after most nutritional value has left the plant. For farmers working jobs off-farm, the answer is obviously not being available when the forage is ready to be cut. However, the bigger answer has a lot of variables, but once weather conditions are satisfactory, the next variable is whether the hay is being cut for on farm use, or is intended to be sold. Hay for on farm use has a somewhat better chance of being cut closer to the optimal time. The hay being cut for sale will be based more on volume, usually cut later, and will be of poor nutritional quality, even straw-like. Good forage hay should have a greenish hue, while straw is golden yellow in color. Smell plays little part in accessing the quality of hay. Even some straw can smell "sweet & grassy."

I seriously question the ability of the modern haymaking equipment being used today to produce hay effectively in its optimal nutritional state. And perhaps herein lies a culprit overlooked by today's hay farmer. Farm machinery has evolved to become extremely complex and expensive, and is rendering the farmer more a heavy equipment operator than a steward of the soil. I have watched countless manufacturers' videos extolling the abilities of today's Tedders and Rotary Rakes. Filmed zooming across broad hay fields at speeds up to 15 MPH, cut hay flung about in a blur of stems and dust, I have to wonder what they are thinking? Because of the ag-industry's emphasis on speed and size, hay forage has to be tough to stand up to the beating it receives from large, heavy equipment.

The leaves are the part of the grass plant with the highest protein and digestibility. How the hay is handled after cutting is of critical importance. Dried grass leaves are fragile, and beating them about with rapidly spinning steel fingers will knock most of the desired foliage from the stem. Hay that is composed primarily of stems and seed heads is more akin to straw. While straw-like hay has some nutritional value, by itself it rarely provides enough energy and protein to meet the animals requirements. The same principles that apply to tedding also hold true for raking. Raking when the hay is limber but not wet with dew will reduce leaf loss. Also using rakes that handle the hay more gently or slowing the speed of the rake if it is working the hay to hard are ways to reduce leaf loss. Front mounted rakes keep the tractor from running over the curing hay, thus preventing avoidable loss.

And lastly, how a farmer manages his or her hayfield is of critical importance. Hay fields should not be an after-thought. They are cropland, and should be treated in the best manner of soil stewardship possible. Failure to do so will result in poor quality hay in spite of when it was cut and how it was baled. Repeated takings of hay will deplete the soil in a few short years if nutrients are not returned at a greater rate than being withdrawn. Hay is not a free lunch. It requires a stockman's learned attention in order to make it the valuable food stock it can be.