Hay making and the balancing act . . . quality vs quantity!

Stan Smith, PA, OSU Extension, Fairfield County (originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of The Ohio Cattleman)

With age comes experience, and with experience eventually comes some of those things that you can only shake your head at. This is the time of year when I usually begin to hear one of my favorites, “I don’t like to get in hurry with that first cutting . . . we don’t want it rained on, and I like to let it grow a little longer so we get more. Besides, even if made a little late, it’s still got to be better than snowballs!

If nothing else, the last two springs have taught us this one thing. Not all first cutting forage is better than snowballs. In fact, the inability to make hay in a timely fashion has cost Midwest cattlemen lots in terms of hay quality that’s resulted in loss of cow condition, breed back issues, poor quality colostrum, and ultimately poor calf health and performance. If there was ever a time to carefully balance hay quality issues with the quantity of hay needed, weather permitting, this must be it! In fact, with some aggressive planning and a little cooperation from Mother Nature, perhaps we can have both quality and quantity this year. Following are some points to consider.

Generally speaking, we’re out of quality hay in Ohio and have been for the better part of two years. The condition of some of our cows confirms it, the price of hay at auction markets confirms it, and laboratory forage analysis confirms it. Not only have the last two years proved to be challenging for forage harvest, but they arrived with little hay inventory on hand.

As we approach the end of April, cows need feed and to add insult to injury, soil conditions for grazing around much of the state have not been the best and may not be great for mechanical harvest either. Regardless, hay needs to come off in a timely fashion.

The first reason is quality. Regardless how tall it gets; the maturity and quality clock has been ticking since forages broke dormancy last month.

We need tonnage to replenish inventory. Getting first cutting off early should result in a more aggressive regrowth, and hopefully the opportunity to harvest an extra cutting in 2020.

Lactating cows need high quality feed now if there’s any hope of getting them bred back in a timely fashion this year. If grazing conditions are less than ideal this spring, careful consideration must be given to whether there’s benefit to pulling cows back off grass after a quick first pass (if and when soil conditions have permitted!) and feeding some early made, high quality hay and perhaps even supplementing it with some additional energy.

An early made first cutting not only guarantees quality that’s been lacking in our forages during recent years, but perhaps more importantly, also allows the opportunity for an extra cutting in 2020. Another opportunity would be the ability to graze the regrowth earlier in the season, thus allowing pastures that were stressed late into fall and throughout winter and early spring a chance to rest.

As an aid to balancing the quality versus quantity conundrum, consider these suggestions:

  • Consider not making an annual fertilizer application prior to the first cutting. Most years it results in more first cutting forage than can be harvested in a timely fashion.
  • Instead, make the first fertilizer application of the year immediately after first cutting in an effort to boost production of a high quality second cutting.
  • Be prepared to wet wrap, or chop and ensile part or all of first cutting in an effort to get it off more timely.
  • Beginning with the first bale you make, plan to inventory similar qualities of hay/forage together and keep record of where they’re located. This allows for easy access for forage testing, and also for feeding those different quality forages once test results come back and a feeding strategy is developed around those results.
  • If soil conditions are allowing grazing animals to do damage to pastures, don’t hesitate to graze quickly and lightly, and then pull animals in and feed first cutting until soil conditions allow proper grazing. Proper pasture rest periods can be just as important in spring as in late summer with regard to yearlong productivity of the forage.

Frankly, the concern for choosing between quality and quantity is no challenge at all. We can have both . . . and need both!