Making Hay Part 3: Hay Cuttings

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Making Hay - Part 3

  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 Cuttings

     Horsemen are very opinionated on which cutting is the best to buy.  Although there are some differences in the cuttings, the quality of the hay is much more important than the cutting.  From a nutritional standpoint, all cuttings can result in prime horse hay.  With alfalfa, there will be some variation in protein content between cuttings.  First cut alfalfa hay has the reputation of having large tough stems, but this is only true if the hay was too mature when cut.  If first cut hay is mowed at the pre-bloom stage, the stems will not be coarse and the nutritive value will be high.  Weeds do tend to appear in first-cut hay.

     Second cut alfalfa hay is usually the fastest growing because it is developing during the hottest part of the season, and it usually has more stem in relation to leaf.  Of all cuttings, second cut tends to be the lowest in crude protein, but its 16 percent average is adequate for all classes of horses.

     Third (and later) cut alfalfa, develops a higher leaf to stem ratio because of the slower growth during the cool part of the season.  Therefore, third cut hay will usually have the highest nutritive value.  Horses which are not accustomed to a good, leafy hay may experience flatulent (gaseous) colic or a loose stool.

     Mixed hays from all cuttings will have similar nutritional values except that with a grass/alfalfa mix, the first cutting will contain a larger proportion of grasses than the other cuttings.

     Most hay today is mowed, conditioned (stems crimped so they will dry faster), and put in a windrow all in one operation.  This results in less manipulation of the hay and less leaf breakage and loss.  The hay dries in the windrow until the moisture is out of the stem.  The level of dryness can be determined by twisting a handful of the hay.  If the stems pop as they break the moisture content is about right for baling.  Scraping the green covering off a stem will also reveal if the stem is still wet.

     Raking or turning the hay in the windrow rolls the hay from the bottom of the pile to the top.  This may be necessary in humid climates, for hay that has been rained on, or with a field that had an unusually dense stand so is laying in heavy windrows.  Raking will facilitate further drying but may contribute to leaf loss.  It is essential that raking be done when the hay has adequate moisture, such as with an early dew, which will prevent leaf shatter and loss.

     Bale size is dictated, for the most part, by the bale wagon being used, with the currently popular wagon requiring a 40 inch long bale which weighs approximately 65 to 70 pounds.  The tightness of the bale can be adjusted.  Tight bales handle well, stack well, and shed weather better.  A too-dry bale must be baled tight in order to retain its leaves but too-wet hay that is baled tight will result in heating and molding.

     Once the hay in the windrow is determined to be at the appropriate moisture level, the hay should be baled with the aid of the morning dew to help hold the leaves on the stems.  This may require the hay grower to get up at 3 AM and bale for the few hours when baling is optimum.  Baling throughout the heat of the day simply does not result in good quality hay in most situations.

     Bales are generally left in the field for a few days to cure or sweat, particularly if there was adequate dew on the hay during baling.  Often the need to irrigate the next cutting requires that the bales be gathered.  Stacking today is generally done with bale wagons which result in tight, stable stacks with staggered joints.  A tall stack results in fewer top and bottom bales which are the ones commonly lost to weathering and ground moisture.  Side bales generally do not get drenched during a rain so dry out adequately.  The middle bales are protected.

     If the bales contain too much moisture, they can ferment and create heat.  The heat can be great enough to result in spontaneous combustion causing a stack to catch fire.  The internal temperature of a bale can be checked by simply cutting the strings and passing the hand between some flakes.  Any warmth should be noted as heat makes undesirable changes in the carbohydrates in the hay.

     Since the nutritive quality of hay can vary so greatly, it is best to test hay before a large purchase, especially if it is to be used for young or lactating horses.  Your extension agent will instruct you on sampling techniques and the test results will reveal crude protein, fiber, energy, and mineral content. 

Cherry Hill

Part 1 - Planting

Part 2 - Challenges

Part 3 - Cuttings

Part 4 - Choosing Good Hay

Part 5 - Hay Varieties



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