Making Hay Part 2: Hay Growing Challenges

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Making Hay - Part 2

  2008 Cherry Hill   Copyright Information

  When shown a bale of premium hay and one of poor quality, most horsemen would have little difficulty deciding which bale they would like to take home and feed to their horses.  But since the average bale of hay has one or more defects and because the hay-buyer's budget enters into the picture, choosing hay, in actuality, is often not so easy.  The many factors which should be considered when selecting hay all relate directly to the growing and harvesting of the hay.  Understanding the hay-making process from the ground up can help you make wise decisions when it comes to buying your winter supply of hay.

Hay Growing Challenges     

     An alfalfa hay field usually remains productive for about five to six years, grass fields often longer.  But not all of those years are equally productive.  The key to getting a new field established is taking advantage of winter snows and spring rains by seeding in the fall.

     Most often, in order to get a stand of hay growing, a nurse crop (also called a cover crop or companion crop) is planted along with the hay seed.  A nurse crop such as oats, will emerge ahead of the more vulnerable hay seedlings.  The oat plants tower over the developing hay seedlings and protect them from the rays of the sun and the root structure of the oats adds to soil stability.  The nurse crop is harvested the next summer, bu often the hay doesn't grow vigorously enough to make a hay crop until the second year.

     The first cutting of the second year may be quite weedy and not suitable for horses.  The second cut from the second year will probably be the first crop suitable for horses.  The third year marks the beginning of the prime years for an alfalfa or alfalfa-mix hay field.  After five years, due to the death of some of the alfalfa plants, the field will have an uneven growth pattern and decreased yield.  With a mixed hay field, the grasses gradually take over and by four to five years, grass will dominate the field.
 It is difficult to chemically control weeds in a hay field as many of the herbicides would kill the hay plants as well as the weeds.  The best defense against weeds is establishing a good, vigorous stand of hay that can compete with the weeds.  Most hay fields tend to clean themselves of weeds after the first cutting of the second year.

     The hay-grower also deals with diseases and insects.  Bacterial, viral, and fungal diseases and some insects will affect hay yield and can kill the entire field.  The selection of the appropriate variety for the local growing conditions is often the best preventative.

     Particularly in the southwest, second cut or later alfalfa hay may contain blister beetles, which can be lethal to horses.  The toxin, cantharidin, is so deadly that just a few beetles, dead or alive, can kill a horse.

     The moisture that is required to grow hay can also contribute to its demise.  In rainy country, although hay grows quickly, it may be difficult to find a hole in the weather pattern that allows harvesting and baling.  Dry, sunny regions with adequate irrigation water are great hay-growing areas.  The yield per acre of alfalfa grown with irrigation is often twice that of alfalfa grown without it.
 When to cut hay is critical.  Usually it is determined by plant maturity.  Other methods involve evaluating crown regrowth after first cut and simply using predetermined calendar dates.  No matter which method is used, one eye is always kept on the weather.

     Using plant maturity as the guide, there exists a trade-off between maximum yield and maximum quality.  The premium hay grower chooses the optimum time when the plants are at their nutritive peak.  Young, immature plants are generally high in protein and low in fiber so result in excellent hay but yield fewer bales per acre.  Mature plants have a lower feed value and higher fiber content so result in a greater number of bales per acre, but the bales are of lesser quality.

     Legumes, such as alfalfa, should be cut when the first flower appears in the field, that is the first flower on a representative plant in the field, not an odd plant along a ditch or field edge.  Another way to gauge cutting time is before 1/10 bloom, that is when one out of ten buds have bloomed on the alfalfa plants.  On very large operations, cutting is started at mid to late bud stage so that cutting will be complete by mid-bloom at the very latest.

     Since most grass fields are cut only once, the farmer often waits until the plants are very tall and seedheads are mature.  This results in a high yield and a safe roughage, but one with very low nutritive value.  Ideally, grasses should be cut at the boot stage, when the seed heads are just emerging from the stem.  The emerging head will be short, compact, and resilient, not three inches long, dry, fuzzy and shedding seeds.

     Mixed hays, such as grass-alfalfa, are cut using the maturity of the alfalfa plants as a guide.  Each day a plant stands after first flowering or past the boot stage, crude fiber increases and crude protein decreases by 1/2 percent per day.

     Using bloom as the sole indicator of plant maturity can be misleading in some situations, as bloom is affected by moisture, clouds, temperature, and the stage of the plants at the previous cutting.  If the first cutting was mowed at the bud stage, for example, and adequate moisture was available for regrowth, then the field could be cut every 35 to 40 days after the first cutting.  Using such guidelines helps to ensure that there will be three cuttings.  Hay which is cut early is usually of high quality and is followed by a fast regrowth, and decent second and third cut yields.  If a field is cut three times, approximately 45% of the year's yield will be in the first cut, 30% in the second cut, and 25% in the third cut.

Cherry Hill

Part 1 - Planting

Part 2 - Challenges

Part 3 - Cuttings

Part 4 - Choosing Good Hay

Part 5 - Hay Varieties



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