So far this year, it has been difficult to get quality hay up. Rain makes it impossible to bale the hay in a timely fashion. For producers that are looking to sell hay, this makes it difficult because color of the feed is important in the hay market. For producers that are going to be feeding their own feed, hay that is rained on means that there will likely be dust in the feed. The dust represents potential disease and toxins and also will reduce intake of the animals that are eating the feed.
The first criteria for obtaining quality feed is to cut the feed at the right stage. With alfalfa, the best quality is obtained when the feed is cut around the 10 % bloom stage. This gives the highest protein content in the feed but cutting at this stage will result in a lower yield because the alfalfa can still grow. All our alfalfa fields are past this stage now. Since we mostly feed beef cows in the area, this does not mean that the feed that we put up is not adequate. Beef cows require less protein so the alfalfa can be cut up to the 50 % bloom stage and still be adequate for cow feed. By cutting later, a producer will gain tonnage but lose quality till this 50 % bloom stage. Once the alfalfa goes past the 50 % bloom stage, both yield and quality decline because the leaves of the alfalfa start to fall off as the plant matures.
Most of grass hay is cut at the flowering stage in this area. This is because this generally matches up with the right timing for cutting the alfalfa that is in the same stand. With grass, the way to maintain quality is to ensure that all the leaves stay on the plants. Drought can cause the leaves to drop as well as diseases in extremely wet weather. In pure grass stands, more leaves means more protein. Grasshoppers eat the leaves of the grass plants, so fields with high numbers of grasshoppers should be sprayed if feed quality is a priority.
Moisture of the feed at baling time is a major factor when it comes to quality feed. With dry feed, it should be put up at no higher than 16 % moisture. When a producer runs above this moisture, the risk of having bales that will spoil and become mouldy becomes higher. The use of additives while you are baling can allow a producer to go to higher moisture levels in the bales. Silage can be used to put feed up at higher moistures but there are guidelines for moisture for silage that must be followed. If these are not followed the feed will heat or become mouldy.
Finally to maintain quality with feed, get the bales out of the field as quickly as possible and if you can, get the bales under cover. The outside six inches to a foot of a bale will deteriorate if it becomes weathered. If the bale in the field is sitting in a low spot that collects water after a heavy rain the bales act like a wick and picks up moisture. This will increase spoilage. With a silage pit, cover the pit to reduce the potential spoilage. These are all activities that will help improve feed quality.
Quality hay makes for better performance of a cow herd and allows for a bigger price for the hay that is to be sold. Take time to ensure that the quality of a hay bale is the best you can make it.
By Dave Cubbon, P Ag