Tennessee’s pastures are green and growing. For livestock farmers, spring is a welcome time to switch from feeding stored hay to having their animals graze in fields.

Still, something to consider is that this spring’s pasture will produce next winter’s feed.

“When hay is stored, we have a good source of nutrients for cattle that can be fed when it’s needed later,” says Gary Bates, a forage specialist with University of Tennessee Extension.

Bates says it’s critical for farmers to know when hay is just right for cutting in order for their herds to eat well when the cold weather returns. “The most important factor that determines hay quality is the state of maturity at harvest,” he says.

As legumes and grasses advance in maturity, they actually drop in crude protein and digestibility. Bates says it is best to cut grass pastures from the boot stage to the early head stage for the first cut, and then four to six weeks afterwards. The late boot level might best be described as when the seed head first pops out of the sheath. The early head stage is when the plant has grown about another foot or so.

Tall fescue or orchard grass hay cut early will be high quality, and good to feed to a lactating cow or calf.