Zero in on alfalfa to maximize hay quality

VERMILION, Alta. — Figuring out the best time to cut hay is an individual decision, but weather and desired feed quality are important considerations to get the best possible product.

“It depends on the performance you need to get out of the cows you are feeding,” said Leila Hickman, an animal science instructor at Lakeland College in Vermilion.

Beef, dairy and horses have different requirements, said Jessica Hryciuk of the college during a recent women’s grazing school.

Horses are limited by quantity because they eat constantly. They need high volumes of hay to sustain their body condition.

A cow is always looking for quality to maintain body weight and wean a healthy calf.

“If she has lots of hay that is of poor quality, she is going to spend more time chewing her cud and using her energy to break down that hay than if it were in smaller quantities but high quality,” said Hryciuk. “A second trimester cow needs less quality than one that is milking and has a calf.”

A dairy cow needs the highest quality to provide it with adequate protein and minerals to make milk.

Figuring out when to cut forages is often based on the desired end product.

“When you have a mixed stand, you always manage your alfalfa, never your grass,” Hryciuk said

Alfalfa–grass mix stands should be cut about a week earlier than a pure stand.

Alfalfa flowers show up on the bottom of the stalk first, and she suggests cutting at the 10 to 20 percent bloom stage.

“That is the ideal crude protein stage to cut, in my opinion.”

Consider the amount of leafy material when cutting grass hay. Grasses stop leaf production when they are going to seed.

“Once that seed head comes out, there will be no more leaves than was already produced,” Hryciuk said.

The grass seeds contain protein but do not have the feed value of cereals such as barley kernels.

Greenfeed harvest is similar to silage cutting. Aim to cut it at the green stage when kernels are starting to develop soft dough. However, the decision rests with the farmer, who may want more fibre.

There are challenges when it comes to harvesting forage in the west because of the short growing season, the potential for winterkill and the subjective definition of quality.

Quality is affected by:

  • environment
  • plant species
  • harvesting conditions where nutrients are lost due to weathering
  • maturity of plants at harvest
  • leaf to stem ratio
  • presence of weeds and noxious weeds that can reduce yields, affect palatability or produce off flavours in milk

Manitoba Agriculture fact sheets say hay’s quality is lost as soon as it is cut. A freshly cut plant is still respiring, which is the process that plants use to turn starch and sugar into energy. Plant energy in the form of sugar and starch are connected to total digestible nutrients (TDN) in hay.

Respiration stops once moisture levels in the plant drop below 40 percent. Shortening the amount of time it takes for cut hay to go to less than 40 percent moisture from 80 percent slows the dry matter and TDN losses after that point.

Tips for making quality hay:

  • Choose the species and the varieties of hay crops to fit the farming need, climate conditions, disease pressure and soil type.
  • Maintain fertility for best yields and increased stand longevity.
  • When estimating relative feed value at first cutting, use a Predictive Equation for Alfalfa Quality measuring stick instead of less accurate calendar dates and crop maturity expectations.
  • Spread hay into wide swaths for the quickest drying.
  • Quickly remove bales from the field and store them out of the elements to maintain quality.

Source: Manitoba Agriculture

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