The Top 6 Questions About Growing Hay, Answered

Experts offer their advice on how to make the best haying decisions for your farm and finances.

By Jason Jenkins | Photos By Jason Jenkins and Jamie Cole

Whether grass or legume, wet or dry, square or round, there’s no one way to put up hay. Each farm has its own unique circumstances, opportunities and challenges when it comes to forage production. And understanding how these factors work together, and how they can impact an operation’s bottom line, will help when making decisions about what haying equipment you need for your operation.

Matt LeCroy, AGCO tactical marketing manager for hay & forage, says each of these factors can be considered individually to help arrive at the best haying solutions.

1. Buying Hay vs. Growing Your Own

“Does it make sense to grow your own, or should you just buy hay?” LeCroy asks. “First you’ve got to know how much you need to feed, and right now, there’s more money in retail hay per acre than there is in all other crops, including hemp.”

Growing forage doesn’t usually pencil out for someone with only one or two horses, but as the number of animals grows, so too does the appeal of producing your own. LeCroy says that when you’re making the haying decisions, you have more control over forage quality. With increased feed value, you can actually feed less.

“Sometimes when you buy hay, the person who cut and baled that hay was looking for tonnage more than quality,” he says. “It may not have been cut at the ideal height or at the ideal time of day, both of which can affect the quality.”

Of course, growing your own requires land, investment in haying equipment and inputs such as seed, fertilizer, fuel and binding materials. You also need time available to manage the forage crop and cut, rake and bale it in a timely manner to ensure forage quality.

2. Grass Hay vs. Legumes

Alfalfa doesn’t grow well in humid climates.

Alfalfa doesn’t grow well in humid climates.

Once you’ve decided to grow your own hay, you must decide what exactly you’ll be producing. While the animals you’re feeding help dictate the type of forage to raise to some degree, your climate plays a larger role.

“Every region is different, and you have to find what crop grows the most efficiently in your area,” LeCroy says. “Crops such as timothy or alfalfa, for example, don’t grow well in humid climates, so if you’re raising horses in north Florida and want to feed those forages, you’re going to have to import your hay.”

Farmers raising the same livestock but living in different regions will feed different hay. For example, Mark Thompson of Pleasant Hill, Missouri, operates a cow-calf operation and feeds his cattle a mixed hay containing tall fescue and clover. But in Montgomery, Texas, Leslie Blalock feeds Bermudagrass hay, not only to his family’s cows, but also to rabbits, donkeys, goats and sheep that they raise.

3. Round Bales vs. Square Bales

Large square balers make a dense, stackable bale but require more tractor horsepower to produce.

Large square balers make a dense, stackable bale but require more tractor horsepower to produce.

Producers must select a baler according to their size and livestock feeding needs.

Round balers account for the majority of the market, LeCroy says. Most models can be pulled by tractors with less than 100 HP, making them a good choice for most family farms.

Large square balers have their place, but “they’re not for everyone,” he says. “You need serious acreage to pay for and justify a large square, and it also takes a bigger tractor, too, something in the 150 HP to 250 HP range.”

In Missouri, Thompson selected the Hesston by Massey Ferguson® 1745 Economy Round Baler for his cattle operation. With roughly 100 acres of hay ground, he says the baler was a cost-effective choice to get the job done efficiently.

“The 1745 was at a price point that allows us to take care of our own hay needs,” he says, adding that the ability to mesh-wrap bales was a definite selling point for the baler. “At our size, a $50,000 baler doesn’t work on the P&L sheet.”

Blalock also feeds round bales to his cattle in Texas, but this past year, the family also added a Massey Ferguson RB4180V silage baler to their operation. With two sets of hydraulically operated knife banks containing a total of 17 knives, Blalock is able to cut his Jiggs Bermudagrass into 2.65-inch pieces that his donkeys, sheep and goats eat more efficiently.

“We put up 1,800 bales this past year,” Blalock says. “With that 4180, we can roll at 15 miles an hour behind our Massey Ferguson 5712SL. It does laps around the field, making a more dense, heavier, prettier, tighter bale of hay than our other baler, which I’m hoping to sell to get another RB baler.”

However, for their rabbits, Blalock puts up small square bales — roughly 2,500 of them in 2019. The smaller package allows workers to put a bale in a cart and feed the rabbits flakes of hay.

“We ran an MF1838 last year, but we’re trading that in for a MF1840, which is more of a commercial small square baler,” he adds.

Small square bales are ideal for horse operations where feeding is metered by flakes of hay, LeCroy says. However, additional equipment may be necessary to collect square bales from the field, whereas a tractor with a bale spike is all that’s needed to move round bales effectively.

4. Dry Hay vs. Baleage (Wet-Wrapped Hay)

Baleage—or, hay that's wrapped when wet—must be consumed right away.

Baleage—or, hay that’s wrapped when wet—must be consumed right away.

While producing dry hay is the more traditional route, there’s a growing number of producers putting up “baleage,” or “wet-wrapped hay.” This forage still has a high moisture content, but is wrapped in several layers of plastic and allowed to ferment.

“You have two main considerations. First is your climate,” LeCroy says. “Do you live in an area where you have three to five consecutive days of dry weather at warm temperatures? If so, dry hay is an option.

“Secondly, how are you going to feed this hay?” he asks. “When you produce baleage, you wrap the hay and cut off any oxygen coming into it, so there’s no mold. But when you cut that bale open and introduce oxygen, it needs to be consumed right away. Anything left after 24 hours is going to be waste. Cows won’t eat it once it begins to mold. Dry hay offers a much larger feeding window.”

LeCroy says that for cattle operations, the tipping point for moving from dry hay to baleage is around 30 animals. “If you only have 10 cows, they can’t consume even the smallest round silage bale in 24 hours,” he adds.

5. Storing Hay: Inside vs. Outside

Square bales must be protected from the elements.

Storage facilities are another consideration in the cost of producing your own hay. LeCroy says that while round bales can be stored outside, all square bales—large or small—must be stored under some type of cover to protect the hay from the elements.

“The outside 2 inches of a round bale sitting outside will get destroyed by the weather, but the remainder inside is maintained because of how the bale is formed,” he says. “However, with square bales, the way the flakes are pressed together allows water to penetrate 100 percent. It’s almost like books stacked on a shelf. There’s no protective cover to keep water from flowing between the pages.”

Because they can be stacked without void spaces in between, square bales take up less space and transport more easily than round bales. LeCroy says squares also can be safely stacked higher.

6. Mower, Conditioner or Windrower?

Which hay tool is right for your operation?

Which hay tool is right for your operation?

When hay is ready to harvest, a grower also must select the type of tool that will first cut the crop. There are many choices — from tractor-mounted disc mowers and pull-behind mower-conditioners to self-propelled windrowers with various headers.

For smaller operations, a disc mower may be the ideal choice. For his Missouri cattle farm, Thompson selected a Massey Ferguson DM1306 disc mower.

“It’s smaller in size, and again, no bells or whistles, but it’s sized to the tractor that I’ve got,” he explains. “There’s a big difference between a $7,000 disc mower and a $30,000 mower-conditioner. How many cows do I have to sell to hit that break-even point? That 1306 gets me to where I still make a little bit of money instead of being in the hole.”

In Texas, Blalock needed to cut and dry his Bermudagrass as quickly as possible. He selected the Massey Ferguson 9960 self-propelled windrower equipped with a RazorBar™ disc header. The machine’s steel-on-steel conditioners ensure that grass stems are crimped every three to four inches. This leads to quicker dry down and higher-quality hay.

“We have hay production on 300 acres, and we like putting up hay in three days. That’s in the barn on the third day,” Blalock says. “With the mower-conditioner we had before, it took 16 hours to cut—two full days of cutting. The 9960 cut that to less than 7 hours.”

Both Thompson and Blalock credited their AGCO dealers—Vahrenberg Implement in Higginsville, Missouri, and WRI Outdoors & Tractors in Bryan, Texas—for listening to their needs and helping them to find the best equipment for their situations. In Thompson’s case, that meant putting together an equipment package that could be operated on a budget with a smaller horsepower tractor. For Blalock, it meant getting hay put up quickly and efficiently so that attention could be turned toward the family’s laboratory business.

LeCroy says AGCO will soon offer hay producers even more choices. An updated and more robust triple mower is on the way featuring a new cutter bar and flotation system. Also scheduled to debut in 2020 is the all-new 4100P Series of round balers. The machine combines baler and wrapper in one, further increasing forage quality and efficiency.

“It’s what we call, ‘hay in a day,’” LeCroy says. “Cut it and 24 hours later, you’re baling it and wrapping it, all on one chassis. The ‘P’ stands for ‘Protec.’ We’re launching at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, in early September.”