With a nationwide shortage of high-priced dairy hay, this spring's first-cutting will be almost worth its weight in gold. High-quality hay means more milk and lower feed costs per hundredweight of milk produced.
That's why timely harvest of this year's hay crop is crucial to dairy farms. And, as Penn State Extension Forage Agronomist Marvin Hall points out, "Depending on location, first-cutting alfalfa will be ready as much as two to three weeks earlier than normal this year."
"This is one of those years when farmers should not look at the calendar to decide when to make first cut," stresses Hall. "Keep an eye on the plant's development to make harvest decisions. I'm expecting to get at least one more hard frost which, depending on its severity, will set the new alfalfa growth back."
"You can't have a conversation about hay production and not mention the weather," adds Kevin Shinners, Extension ag engineer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As with any agricultural crop, that's the number one challenge every producer faces. But with hay and haylage, weather problems can be even more acute, because of the extended field drying time often required.
Speed up hay harvest
Swathing – laying that crop down as wide as possible – is the best way to speed up hay dry-down, he adds. It utilizes the sun's heat and drying energy to the maximum extent possible. "Anything you can do to get that crop to dry quicker so you can get it out of the field and miss a rainstorm, that's money well spent."
A mower conditioner is a good tool to speed dry down. Mechanically conditioning the stem also improves drying rates. But he acknowledges that mechanically conditioning haylage is currently controversial.
"Some people suggest that by not conditioning the crop, they can slow the drying rate down and once it reaches the ideal chopping moisture content, it'll stay there for a longer period of time. However, without conditioning, the crop will take longer to get to the optimum moisture content, and you put the crop at risk of weather damage.
Make sure conditioning rolls are set up to reduce mechanical resistance of the moisture leaving the plant, notes Shinners. "Roll clearance needs to be set so that the stem is cracked every three to four inches to open up routes for water to exit the plant."
Being gentle on the crop is the third key to high quality, contends the haying expert. That's why he cautions growers to avoid tedding or raking when the leaves are brittle.
That's one reason progressive dairies are capturing top forage quality with highly productivity harvesting equipment. "When the weather's right and the crop is mature, you can't plod along like Grandpa did," he adds. "You need equipment to get through those acres as quickly as you can, and get into the next growing cycle. In Wisconsin, growers try to cut haylage on a 28- to 30-day cutting cycle to have more uniform crop quality and higher quality forage."