Make Hay When the Sun Shines . . . What Sun?

Mark Sulc, OSU Extension Forage Specialist

Getting our first cutting of forages this year seems to be shaping up to be another frustrating experience, although we can only hope it won’t be as bad as last year. The outlook for the end of May does not look very promising for a nice stretch of dry weather. While the recent cool weather has slowed development and growth of our forage crops, in central Ohio forage grasses are entering or already well into the heading stage and alfalfa is beginning to show buds. So it is time to start thinking about that first harvest soon, along with getting corn and soybeans planted!

Last year in the midst of very rainy weather I urged hay producers to “be patient, to make sure their hayfields were dry enough to support their equipment before they try to get out on them once the sun starts to shine again.”  I heard how some tore up their fields and lost stands. The alternative is to be patient and to lose forage quality as the stand matures. But I still think the complete loss of the value of one cutting is a better choice than ruining a forage stand for the remainder of its potential productive life by running equipment on ground that is too soft, especially if it is a younger stand. So let me repeat what is indeed easy for me to say, but super hard to put into practice – be patient, take the long look and wait until the field is dry enough to support the equipment without damaging the forage stand.

There are some management steps that can reduce the field curing time once the hay is cut. First, adjust your mower to lay as wide a windrow as possible in order to maximHayRowsize the surface area exposed to the sun. The picture accompanying this article shows narrow windrows, which is not what you want. Try to get windrows that cover 65-70% of the cutting swath. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines to adjust the crimping rollers or the clearance of the flails on flail conditioners. Do not assume the mower is adjusted correctly for this spring’s crop, check it and make sure the mechanical conditioner is doing a good job. Tedding soon after mowing (usually the same day or early the second day) can also be a good option to maximize forage surface area exposure to the sun. Tedding is especially a good option for grasses because it does not cause the leaf loss in grasses that can result with legumes.

Using chemical desiccants this time of year tends to be risky because they are less effective under cool and moist conditions than under good drying conditions. A more reliable option in the spring is to apply a proprionic acid preservative as the crop is being baled because it allows you to bale at slightly higher moisture contents. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for recommended rates (product formulations vary), but you should be applying the equivalent of 10 lbs of actual proprionic acid per ton of forage being harvested.

Consider making balage or silage rather than dry hay on first cutting if at all possible. For upright silos or bags, wilt the crop to 30 to 50% dry matter (50 to 70% moisture) and for balage to 40 to 55% dry matter (45 to 60% moisture). This significantly reduces the curing time compared with drying down to 80 to 85% dry matter (15 to 20% moisture) that is necessary for dry hay, depending on the hay bale size. When making hay crop silage or balage from legumes in the spring (alfalfa and clover), consider using a lactic acid bacteria (LAB) inoculant to improve fermentation. Naturally occurring populations of LAB can be too low when legume crops are wilted under cool and/or short wilting periods.