Wide swaths best chance for high quality hay

Forage quality | Wide swaths let hay 
dry faster and reduce starch loss, says expert

FRIEDENSFELD, Man. — Canadian producers need to forgo the windrow if they want to produce high quality hay, says Dan Undersander, a U.S. forage expert.


“How many of you put your hay into a windrow, in between the wheels (of the swather)?” Undersander asked at the Manitoba Hay and Silage Day held in southeastern Manitoba in mid-June. 


He had some quick advice when a couple of producers raised their hands.


“That’s a bad choice. You shouldn’t do that…. One of the things we’ve learned, from all of our research over the years, the single most important thing to drying hay is to put it into a wide swath that covers 70 to 80 percent of the cut area.”


Undersander, an extension research forage agronomist at the University of Wisconsin, said photosynthesis stops when hay is cut, but enzymes in the plant remain active.


“What are they doing? They’re breaking down the starches and sugars. They’re giving off carbon dioxide,” he said.


Undersander said the hay continues to respire until the moisture content reaches 60 percent. The longer it takes to reach that level, the greater the losses of starch, sugar and dry matter. It’s why the initial drying stage is crucial for maintaining forage quality, Undersander said.


“Since the starches and sugars are 100 percent digestible, we’re losing a lot of energy in the forage.”


Undersander said wide swaths are the best way to achieve rapid drying.


“We’re intercepting more sunlight and getting it to dry,” he said. 


“Just like clothes on a clothesline.”


Pam Iwanchysko, a forage specialist with Manitoba Agriculture in Dauphin, said wide swaths reduce hay drying time by one day.


“I’ve seen it first-hand with producers … and it does actually work,” she said. 


“With our weather patterns, if we have only small windows (of time) … getting that one less day of dry down is really critical (for) putting up higher quality hay.”


Some producers assume that driving over the wide swaths will cause leaf loss in the forage, but Undersander said it’s not an issue.


“That first day you’re not doing a lot of damage because the leaves aren’t actually falling off the plant.”


Undersander has been spreading the gospel about wide swaths for years, and forage producers in the U.S. Midwest have latched onto the message.


Seventy percent of alfalfa in Wisconsin and other states is now cut into wide swaths, he said.


Iwanchysko said adoption is slow in Manitoba, but a few farmers around Dauphin are following the recommendation.


“Some of those producers put up the best quality hay in the north Parkland area.”


John MacGregor, extension co-ordinator with the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association, said wide swaths make sense for the first and second cut. 


“I see it working extremely well for the guys who want to try and put up dry hay, baled hay,” he said. 


“Trying to find four days of non-rainy weather, it isn’t there very often in Manitoba (during) first cut and even sometimes in second cut.”

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