How to make hay when facing variable conditions
With different areas of the province receiving anywhere from 12 to more than 250 mm of rain in the last few weeks, and the unsettled weather patterns experienced over the last few weeks, it will be a challenge to make good quality hay.
In the drier areas of the province, plants are in survival mode and are trying to complete their lifecycle as quickly as possible. The sole purpose of plant growth is to produce seed to ensure longevity of the stand. Plants are shorter in height to conserve nutrients and water and mature 2 to 4 weeks sooner than when adequate moisture is available. Quality declines more rapidly with more fibre and less protein in the forage.
Waiting to get a higher yield in this situation is not a good management practice. Once grasses have headed out and legumes are in the 10 to 20% flowering stage, there will be no additional growth. Plants will not grow taller. For every week that cutting is delayed, protein content will drop by 1 to 2% per week. If cutting is delayed for two weeks; instead of harvesting a crop with 14% protein, it is possible that the hay will be in the 10 to 11% range. Energy is also negatively impacted when crops are cut late. TDN values can drop by 1.5 to 2 points per week as well. Take what there is and allow time for the plants to recover as much as possible before they go dormant.
Over the last two to three weeks, some areas of the province have received up to 300 mm (12 inches) of rain. Some fields are too soft for any type of equipment to be on the fields without cutting ruts, damaging the stand and making future field work unpleasant at best. In these situations, there is nothing to do but wait. Unfortunately, the plants will continue to mature and quality losses will occur.
In areas with less rainfall and the fields can support equipment, the question is what to do and when to cut the hay with the unsettled weather conditions. Rainfall on cut hay can reduce yield and quality. Various studies have reported up to a 40% reduction in yield, especially when there is a high percentage of legume in the stand. Leaching of soluble sugars and protein cause quality loss. More damage occurs when the plants are within 1 – 2 days of baling compared to crops that are freshly cut.
With the occurrence of frequent showers and wet soil, it will take longer for the cut hay to dry and cure. It will be very challenging to make dry hay if the weather does not improve. A couple options to consider: 1) make chopped silage out of the hay crops and place the material into a pit, pile or bag. 2) make round bale silage and place the bales in either long tubes, or wrap as individual bales. The time required between cutting and baling can be reduced from a week (or longer) to one to two days. This prevents weather damage to the forage. When comparing dry hay to higher moisture product, generally the yield and quality of the high moisture product is higher.
Making silage bales is time sensitive. Moisture should be in the 45to 55% moisture range if the bales may be stored more than 12 months. If the bales are to be used this winter, moisture can be down in the 30 to 35% range. Once the bales are made, if possible, the bales should be in a tube or individually wrapped within 10 to 12 hours of making the bales to have proper fermentation and a high quality product.
If moisture content in the bales is higher than 55%, the bales freeze solid and the cows have difficulty eating the hay from a bale feeder. Moisture levels above 70% impairs the fermentation process and quality is reduced. Also, there is a slight chance that listeria could be present in the silage.