Hay Quality Is Improved by Understanding How it Dries

Stan Smith, PA, Fairfield County OSU Extension

The late spring and seemingly slow early growth of our forages this year may fool some into thinking that we can delay harvest in order to capture more tonnage without sacrificing quality. Don’t be fooled! While the early growth of forages may have been less than we hope for, maturity of those forages is arriving right on schedule. See the orchard grass that was photographed in Fairfield County last evening. Fescue and cereal rye can also be found coming into head. Regardless how tall a forage may be, maturity dictates it’s time to make hay.


University of Wisconsin Extension Forage Agronomist Dan Undersander says in his fact sheet that if we understand and use the biology and physics of forage drying properly, not only does the hay dry faster and have less chance of being rained on, but the total digestible nutrients (TDN) of the harvested forage are higher. Specifically, Undersander offers 3 key recommendations:

1. Put cut forage into a wide swath at cutting that covers at least 70% of the cut area.

2. For haylage: If drying conditions are good, rake multiple swaths into a windrow just before chopping (usually 5 to 7 hours later).

3. For hay: If drying conditions are good, merge/rake multiple swaths into a windrow the next morning after mowing (when forage is 40 to 60 % moisture) to avoid leaf loss.

For more detail on getting hay harvested efficiently, see Undersander’s Focus on Forage fact sheet entitled, Field Drying Forage for Hay and Haylage. For additional detail, you may also want to review the University of Wisconsin publication, “Best Practices to Hasten Field Drying of Grasses and Alfalfa” which Undersander also contributed to.

Considering the many challenges for quality hay production in Ohio, I’ve heard lots of discussion regarding alternatives for harvesting and storing forages. A few years ago during the Buckeye Shepherds Symposium, Dr. Bill Weiss of the OSU Animal Science Department gave a presentation on making and storing forages for ruminants. The session was recorded and is available on-line. It covers nearly all of the considerations for harvesting and storing forages in order to maintain the highest quality possible. Forages are expensive to grow, expensive to harvest, and become even more expensive if not stored and fed properly.

If you plan to mechanically harvest any forage this year, in addition to reviewing the publications linked above, set aside 45 minutes of your time and follow this link to Dr. Weiss presentation . . . it will be time well spent! http://go.osu.edu/storingforages