(previously published in Indiana Prairie Farmer: February 23, 2018)
Making quality hay can be difficult any time of year. First-cutting hay can provide extra challenges, largely due to weather and other time demands early in the season.
1. Have every piece of hay equipment ready before haying season arrives. It starts with sharp blades on my mower-conditioner. If they’re dull and I’ve already turned them over, I replace them. Dull blades drag down the tractor, requiring more horsepower.
2. Prioritize which fields should be cut first each year. You may make this decision based on species in the field, soil types or a combination of both. Some of my soils are wetter than others. It’s usually tough to get on those soils early in the spring.
3. Alfalfa-orchardgrass usually ranks higher in priority for early cutting. If you’ve got both alfalfa-orchardgrass and grass hay, it’s often an advantage to cut the alfalfa-orchardgrass first, before the orchardgrass becomes too mature. The longer the first cutting stays in the field, the more bales you get, but feed value declines. Crude protein drops, and fiber content increases. Weeds can also become an issue. In central Indiana, May 15 is often a good target to make an initial cutting of alfalfa-orchardgrass. Soil moisture and finding a weather window may decide if that’s doable.
4. Look for a weather window with higher odds of getting hay made without rain. My goal is to cut as soon as a cold front passes and the temperature drops 10 to 15 degrees. That means high pressure is moving in, bringing lower humidity levels, which helps with faster drying.
5. Condition the hay, if possible. That is possible in most operations today. Conditioning helps hay dry faster. As you cut, spread out the swath as wide as possible to maximize the drying surface.
6. Ted hay if a tedder is available and the hay is thick. Ideally, make that pass with a tedder within 24 hours of cutting. Tedding helps because it spreads hay over the entire field surface. Even maximum swaths behind a conditioner leave gaps where there’s no hay. If you have limited acreage and don’t need a tedder every time, maybe you can borrow one. That works well for me.
7. Pick the right time to rake hay. The object is to rake before it’s so dry that you lose an excessive amount of leaves. I prefer to rake on the same day I intend to bale, rather than the day before.
8. Bale at the correct moisture level. Moisture testers are available to help you gauge moisture content, or you more likely have a good feel through experience. I shoot to bale in the 15% to 20% moisture range. Baling too dry leads to leaf loss. Baling at 20% to 23% risks spoilage. If you bale above 23%, you increase risk of spontaneous combustion and fire during storage.
Parker is a forage and livestock producer from Morgan County, Ind.