Time For Timothy

Foreign and domestic demand continues to grow for this highly valued hay.

On the grasslands of southern Alberta, where the prairie’s seemingly endless expanse gives way to the foothills of the Rockies, one name is synonymous with high-quality timothy hay: De Kok.

For the past 35 years, De Kok Forages has specialized in producing this grass hay near Fort Macleod. Like timothy, the family also is a perennial, contending year after year in the forage competition at the North American Seed Fair at Lethbridge. Two of the past three years, the De Koks won the timothy hay class; in 2017, they also were named champion of the open hay class.

The second generation of De Koks to work the family land, Jack and Colleen

The second generation of De Koks to work the family land, Jack and Colleen.

“My grandfather, Pieter De Kok, came here from Holland and started the farm, and my parents, Jack and Colleen, began growing timothy,” says Mike De Kok. “I’m third generation. Along with my parents and my wife, Janita, I raise about 1,000 acres of irrigated timothy and another 2,000 acres of alfalfa.”

Introduced to North America by European settlers, the grass wasn’t known as timothy until a Swedish immigrant farmer named Timothy Hanson began to promote its cultivation for horse fodder in the early 18th century. While often pigeonholed as “horse hay” since then, timothy is a naturally sweet, nutritious grass that finds appeal not only in equestrian circles, but also in the dairy industry and the pet trade. In recent years, demand for this palatable forage has grown, especially on the export market, making it lucrative for those who can grow it.

“This year, the price has been incredible—one of the highest we’ve ever seen,” De Kok says. “On average, we’ve been selling first-cut timothy for $300 per metric ton.” That’s as much as a 30% increase over prices the previous year.

Growing Timothy

Producing timothy does require certain growing conditions. With a shallow root system, the cool-season grass tolerates wet soils, but it suffers in warm, dry conditions, relegating its cultivation to more northern latitudes with adequate rainfall or irrigation.

“The optimum growing temperature for timothy is 72 to 75˚F. Above that, it really stops growing,” says Dan Undersander, forage agronomist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “However, it’s one of our most winter-hardy grasses, which is another reason we can grow it on both sides of the Canadian border.”

Before growers plant a timothy stand, Undersander recommends they find a hay market, particularly if they have international intentions. “Too many plant a hay crop, grow it and figure they’ll sell it,” he says. “Well, selling means cheap. Marketing means a good price.”

Timothy stands can be established successfully in the spring, late summer or fall. Undersander recommends a seeding rate of 4 pounds per acre when timothy is interseeded with a legume such as alfalfa or clover. Nitrogen isn’t required if legumes account for 40% of the stand. He suggests 8 pounds per acre for pure grass stands, with at least 40 pounds of nitrogen applied per acre prior to each growth cycle.

“Timothy isn’t the fastest establishing species,” he says. “Eight pounds is greater than many seeding recommendations, but the higher rate will provide some early stand density to help keep weeds under control.”

Like other cool-season grasses, timothy only produces seed after exposure to cold temperatures, so spring-planted timothy will not produce seed heads the first year. To help establish new stands, Undersander says the grass should be cut at 70 to 80 days after planting with one or two subsequent cuttings during the initial growing season. “Fall-planted timothy will produce seed the following calendar year.”

Hay Harvest

While timothy growers certainly make hay while the sun shines, they also need to consider the needs of their buyers. The intended market determines when the hay is cut.

Much of Mike De Kok’s first-cut timothy finds its way to Japan, where dairies prefer to feed coarse hay with big, green seed heads. Second-cut hay contains more leaves and fewer seed heads, which is the preference for domestic dairies, as well as the horse and pet food industries. While nutritional value varies, De Kok says most of his hay is sold primarily on its celery-green color.

“It’s not as critical to look at the fiber content in timothy,” adds Dan Putnam, statewide alfalfa and forage Extension specialist at the University of California, Davis. Many buyers, he says, “are looking at the aesthetics of the crop rather than the quality analysis.”

However, locking in both color and nutrition requires that timothy hay be cut, dried and baled quickly and efficiently. Both De Kok and Undersander agree that conditioning the hay allows it to dry faster.

“If we get the right weather, we’ll have a timothy field cut, baled and hauled off in three to five days,” De Kok says. “We can cut 300 to 350 acres a day with our two cutters. When you go, you go hard.”

Maintaining pure timothy stands can be a challenge, as weeds and other grasses encroach over time. Every four to five years, De Kok rotates his timothy fields to alfalfa, which fixes nitrogen in the soil and provides another high-quality forage crop.

“Rotating between timothy and alfalfa means the soil always has something growing on it, which is good because we do get a lot of wind,” he says of the climate in Alberta. “It’s good that way, and the main part of it, there’s a lot of money in it … if everything goes right.”