May is the month which provides forage for Virginia cattle for much of the year.
Part of this abundant growth we use to feed the herd and a portion most cattlemen harvest as hay and feed at various times through the upcoming winter.
Economic records and budget analysis clearly show that maximizing the grazing portion and minimizing the hay portion are major contributors to increasing profitability in a cow-calf enterprise.
Equipment, fuel and fertilizer costs are the major cash cost contributors to hay production costs. This is not considering the labor involved in the harvest and feeding of the hay, or the loss associated with its storage and feeding.
There are important strategies cattlemen can utilize for both the grazing and preservation portions of their forage crop to increase the impact.
By all rights hay production is expensive, regardless of the quality of the hay.
One way to increase the return on your hay investment is to strive to produce high value hay, which means high quality hay.
Given the comparative value per pound of TDN and protein in corn and soybean meal, the difference in feeding value from poor to very good quality grass hay can be as high as $50-60 per ton.
Generally, there is some sacrifice in tonnage per acre to produce high quality hay, but most costs are not impacted by tons produced.
Beyond the feeding nutrient value of the hay, each ton of grass will also remove $60-70 per ton in nutrients in the form of N, P, and K. This cost in nutrients is there whether you fertilized or not.
Bottom line — hay is expensive.
Minimize how much you need; work to keep its nutrient content high and store it like it is a valuable commodity (it really is).
Keys to success
The following points are a few keys to succeeding:
1.) Cut the hay when it is still vegetative — maturity at harvest is the primary determinant of hay quality. Each day of added age decreases quality by adding fiber and decreasing digestibility.
2.) You can’t always avoid the rain — rain on cut hay will lower its nutrient content. The amount of change is related to how much rain and how dry the hay was when rained on.
One of the unknowns is we never know how much rain to expect. However, it is guaranteed that if you wait an additional week to 10 days, nutrient content and digestibility of the hay will decline.
3.) Take advantage of drying conditions — begin cutting the crop early in the day (immediately before or soon after the dew is off) so that you take advantage of all the drying weather. Plant sugars rise later in the day, but I am not sure that is an even trade for a day of drying weather.
4.) Don’t overuse the tedder — a hay tedder can increase the drying rate by inverting and spreading out the hay crop. However, over-teddering or teddering when the forage is too dry can result in leaf loss.
5.) Check the mowing height — cool season grasses can be sensitive to mowing height. Cutting below 3 inches can negatively impact your stand. Orchardgrass is probably more sensitive than fescue. Although that extra inch of lower stem might contribute to weight and volume it adds very little in regard to nutrients and digestibility.
6.) Don’t bale it too wet — all hay will go through a few days of heating following baling. The amount of moisture will affect how high the temperature goes and how long.
The use of round bales has reduced some of the dangers of burning a barn down. Most of the risk reduction is that most round bales don’t go into a barn.
The heating is really mold using available sugars in the hay.
If the heat is high enough (above115F) or extended, the TDN content will be reduced.
If the temperature is high enough (130-140 protein availability can be reduced. A target would be under 20 percent moisture with 15 percent moisture close to ideal.
Hay production is a costly, time consuming enterprise. It’s important for cattlemen to focus on harvesting as many nutrients as possible, rather than weight or volume.