Making Hay … Quality Hay, That Is

Producers share their best practices.

By Becky Mills

With input costs in the ridiculous range, it doesn’t make much sense to bale sorry hay. Granted, the weather is out of your control, but there are steps you can take to help put quality hay in your barn.

Easy Adjustments

In Heinsburg, Alberta, Darrell Younghans emphasizes timing and moisture content on the 200 acres he round bales for his cattle. He fertilizes the forage, which is alfalfa and either timothy or brome, in the spring. By the end of June or at least by mid-July, it is normally ready for its one and only cutting. “We try to cut it at 25% bloom,” says Younghans. “Our hay is primarily alfalfa—80%—so we go by the stage of alfalfa.”

Next, he shoots for 16% moisture. “We try to crimp it as much as possible without losing leaves,” says Younghans, who uses two Hesston 9635 windrowers. “The design of those rollers are a lot better than any I‘ve used before. They don’t bang the leaf around as bad.

“Then we make a wide windrow,” he explains. “I set the windrow as wide as I can then rake it.” A V rake, he says, “brings two windrows together and lays the bottom of the windrows up on top. It makes them nice and fluffy so the air can get through it.”

Depending on the weather, Younghans says the whole process, from cutting until baling, usually takes around four to five days. If he bales when the moisture is too high, the hay is in danger of molding. If it dries out too much, he loses the nutritious alfalfa leaves.

The cattle producer also bales 200 to 250 acres of oat hay, usually in September. He uses a Hesston 9125 header to cut it as green feed as soon as it gets to the milk stage. Even then, there are oats in part of it, which is why he bales it without raking. “We’ve found if we rake it we lose more oats and it will bring dirt in.”

Younghans says, when he bales oats, he uses a wider gap and less pressure in his Hesston 956C round baler, than when bales his alfalfa. Fortunately, the baler is easy to fine tune to accommodate either crop. “It’s an easier adjustment. It’s very easy; just one knob.”

He can also bale at higher moisture levels than with his alfalfa mix. “We start baling at 18% moisture because it has larger stems and it won’t pack as tight.”

Younghans has to have equipment and a dealer he can depend on because hay is a necessity in his climate. “Hesston has treated me well,” he states. “And the dealership has been great.” He does business with Morey Dennill at Dennill’s Agricenter in Vegreville.

His 220 commercial cows are in dry lot from the first part of January until June where they get either alfalfa or oat hay. His calves go in dry lot when they are weaned in October. He backgrounds them on the mixed alfalfa hay, oats and a mineral mix until he sells them as yearlings in mid-February.

Accordion Crimping

In Bryan, Texas, Stephen Schoeneman has a much longer growing season than Younghans, so he relies on frequent cuttings to keep his Coastal bermudagrass hay tender and nutritious. First, he starts in April by fertilizing with a complete fertilizer, using his soil test results as a guide. Then, he top dresses with more fertilizer after every cutting. On part of his hay land he’ll put out more blended fertilizer, but if the soil fertility is holding up he’ll just apply nitrogen.

The cutting schedule on his 1,000 to 1,200 acres of hay land can be practically non-stop. “It depends on the weather. On dry land we’ll get three to four cuttings, depending on rainfall. Under a pivot we’ll get five or six cuttings, depending on the year.”

That works out to every 30 to 35 days on the Coastal, which he is careful to cut before it makes a seed head. “But that depends on the weather. Mother Nature dictates the quality.”

Once he does start the cutting and baling process, he aims for 10 to 12% moisture. “With square bales we’ll ted it now and then, but it has been so dry the last few years we haven’t done much of that. Then, we’ll give it a day or two to dry and rake and bale it.” He also says he can often bale the day after he rakes, but it depends on the time of year and the humidity.

With his attention on timely cutting, he says his dry land hay runs 12 to 14% crude protein, while the irrigated hay can go as high as 15 to 16% protein. He emphasizes, though, “That’s as long as you can get it cut when you need to.”

With sudan grass, Schoeneman tries to cut it before it starts booting out. He plants the fast growing summer annual from mid-April to May. Then, he can cut it for the first time between the end of May through June. He says, “In an optimal year we can get three to three and a half cuttings, but most years we get two to two and a half cuttings.”

Once he cuts the sudan, he says, “The main thing is to swath it and crimp it real good. It is a hybrid and has a big stem, a finger’s thickness. The Hesston steel-on-steel rollers,” he says of his Hesston headers on his two Hesston 9635 windrowers, “do a lot better conditioning job than the Deeres and the New Hollands and stuff like that.”

“We used to run the rubber rollers,” Schoeneman continues, “and they did a good job. But the problem with the rubber rollers is they flattened [the hay] and stacked it like paper where it won’t dry as fast as [hay conditioned by] the steel-on-steel rollers. The steel rollers ‘accordion’ the hay, where the air will get through it and dry it out faster.”

He bales sudan grass when it is between 10 to 15% moisture. He explains, “I like 12% but sudan holds a little more moisture.” He says it generally takes four to five days from cutting to baling.

He bales small square bales, large square bales and two sizes of round bales to supply his horse, beef cattle, dairy and goat dairy customers. For the most part, his own 200 head of crossbred cows get the lower quality hay although he does try to give them better quality when they are milking heavy and trying to rebreed.

Tender Grass, Delicate Job

In Celina, Ohio, Steve Wolters gives his fescue/ryegrass hay a jump start by applying liquid hog manure to the fields in late November or early December. “That is my primary fertilizer source on the fields close to home. It really gives it a boost.” On fields farther from his headquarters he applies ammonium sulfate after he gets the first cutting, which is normally by the end of May.

Wolters tries to cut the mixed grass hay before it heads out but says, “It is really soft and tender grass, it isn’t coarse like orchardgrass or brome.” It’s a must, then, that his Hesston 3309 disc mower conditioner mower, which he purchased at Coldwater Implement, tackle the job without damaging the grass. “It cuts fine,” Wolter says about his 3309. “It doesn’t damage [the grass] at all and the blades stay fairly sharp.”

Once he does cut it, like all hay producers, he tries to get it in the bale without a rain. He also says, “We ted it to dry it a little bit quicker.”

Wolters normally gets three cuttings a year of the quality forage, but has gotten as many as four. Usually his last cutting is in October. All of his hay goes into small square bales for his horse customers. Several years ago one of his customers got his hay tested and Wolters reports, “It was 18 or 19% protein. I was pleased.”

As for the 300 head of Holstein steers he feeds out, they usually don’t see a blade of the fescue/ryegrass hay, but get whole shelled corn and a pelleted feed. “I might give them a little corn stover. But they are Holsteins. They’ll eat anything,” Wolters jokes.