Each step of the harvest process is important in maintaining the highest quality.
Maturity of the grass or alfalfa determines your mowing date. The first cutting of any hay usually has a higher weed and grass content because of what's blown into the field over the winter. The first cuttings are also high in nutrients — protein, vitamins, and minerals — because the plants are putting most of their energy into growth.
In grass hay, the second cutting is usually the best to feed. Alfalfa hay's second and third cuttings are the best. Alfalfa's fourth and fifth cuttings begin to have more stems and fewer leaves, and with more stems, the hay's quality decreases and palatability declines.
Because it takes about three days of good weather to cure hay after mowing, time your cutting around the most reliable weather forecast available. It can be a challenge during late spring's rainy days, but you might mow right after a rain because weather probably will be dry for the next few days.
Mowing early in the morning allows you to gain a day of drying time.
Drying hay needs to be worked to help it cure. A process called "tedding" fluffs up cut hay and breaks up clumps of forage so that air and sun can reach all of it, allowing it to dry faster and more evenly.
Faster drying reduces moisture rot in baled hay, and also eliminates the possibility of spontaneous combustion, which happens when hay baled too wet or green ferments and heats up — which could burn down your barn or haystack.
Some growers avoid tedding to prevent leaf shatter, which lowers hay quality, but you can preserve leafiness by cutting hay early and tedding when the plant is still moist.
When the tedded hay is nearly dry, it's ready to rake. Raking turns the hay one more time and forms it into rows, called windrows, for baling.
It's a good idea to wait until about 11 a.m. to rake hay, after dew has dried and the sun is near its peak. Once it's raked, let the hay sit for a couple of hours before it is baled to allow more drying time.
When the hay is thoroughly dry, it's time to bale. Knowing when to bale takes a bit of scrutiny; baling too early traps moisture and spoils hay, and baling too dry causes leaves to break, lowering the quality. Hay is generally baled with a moisture content between 15-18 percent. If it is baled and stored above 22 percent moisture, it can heat up and can potentially create fire by spontaneous combustion.
You've got to handle the hay to feel if it's ready for baling. If it has a brittle, crisp feel and breaks easily, it's ready to bale. If it contains bunches of green plant material and does not break easily, then it's still too green to bale.
You must decide whether you want round or square bales. Round bales are handled mechanically, which is an advantage, but their size may cause more hay loss; if you store a 6-foot-diameter round bale outside, about 30 percent or so of the hay is wrapped in the outer 6-inch layer. This means that a few inches of spoilage can cause a significant loss of hay.
Square bales are a little more labor intensive, but they are more easily marketed to small livestock producers.
You also must decide on the twine to wrap your new bales in. Options include sisal — the fiber that has been around practically forever — plastic, and net wrap.
They each have their advantages:
High knot strength
Treated to resist rodents and insects
No need to remove twine when temperature falls below freezing
UV light inhibitors
Reduced machine wear
Withstands "drop shock"
Hay crop protection
Tight full width
Leaf loss reduction
Neater and easier to transport bales
Minimum loss due to spoilage
Store Hay Correctly
Your hay is a large investment. Store it properly so it will keep well and won't lose quality.
Hay that gets damp will mold or ferment. If it's exposed to weather or sunshine, it will lose nutrients.
Most of your hay supply should not be stored in the barn, to minimize fire hazard, but should be protected from weather — in a hay shed or on pallets on high ground covered with a good tarp. Hay stored outdoors should always be up off the ground or on a base of crushed rock to keep the bottom bales from soaking up moisture.
Protecting hay from weather helps preserve nutrient quality, though long storage eventually will reduce the nutritional values.
Stack hay so the oldest is used first. Then you won't end up with some that was stored a long time before use. Divide the hay storage area so that when one portion is used up, you can stack new hay there while you use hay from the other area.
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