In tough years like this a lot of hay comes from summer annual forage but it's tough to put up for good quality.
Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska forage specialist, says hay from summer annual grasses like sorghum-sudan hybrids, pearl millet and forage sorghums is hard to get dry and keep from heat damaging itself or molding. That's aside from nitrate problems in dry weather like what's gripping most of the nation right now.
"Obviously, this type of hay, which is also called cane hay by some folks, is challenging to bale or stack for most growers," Anderson says.
Nearly all problems making good summer grass or cane hay are caused by the stems, he says. Stems are low in protein and energy, they are unbearably slow to dry, and the lower stems contain most of the potentially toxic nitrates.
To reduce these problems, Anderson says, cut the hay early when plants are only waist high. When cut early, stems are smaller, cattle eat them readily and the hay contains more protein and energy.
When cut shorter there is less plant volume so smaller stems and fewer of them allows the hay to dry more quickly.
Also, cut the crop high, leaving 8 to 10 inches of stubble. Tall stubble pays off three ways:
1. It helps plants begin regrowth more quickly.
2. It holds hay off the ground so air can help dry it underneath.
3. It keeps many nitrates out in the field stubble rather than harvesting them into your hay.
Finally, you should always crimp cane hay, Anderson says. Even when stems are small, the waxy coating causes slow drying. But if you break open these stems by crimping, water will be able to escape and evaporate more quickly.
Chris Teutsch, an extension agronomist with Virginia Tech, concurs in a good paper he authored on summer annual forages.
He adds, "In order to reduce the chances of prussic acid poisoning, forage sorghum should not be grazed until it reaches a height of at least 30 inches."
Teutsch says mower swaths should be made as wide as possible to increase surface area for drying.
Cut for hay or wilted silage at the late boot to early head stage. Forage sorghum can also be direct ensiled when the seed has reached the soft dough stage.
Many states have good materials on summer annual forages which are locally adapted for growing, grazing and haying conditions in their regions. A couple thorough ones are from Mississippi State University and Oklahoma State University.
Also find more on forage and crop management during drought from all the Farm Progress family of publications at Dateline Drought.