Last month, Scott Pierson not only won the alfalfa division of the Oregon Hay and Forage Association's Hay King Contest for the third straight year, he also topped the small grain hay division. His winning alfalfa entry tested 24.4% protein with a 281 relative feed value score.

But Pierson hasn't always produced contest-winning hay. By his own admission, the quality of his product was marginal when he started his hay business in 1999. He's gotten progressively better by constantly striving to improve.

“There's always something you can do to improve hay quality,” says Pierson, who grows 355 acres of irrigated and 100 acres of dryland hay near Silver Lake, OR. “If you get complacent about your work, you get lazy and then you lose your enthusiasm. Improving hay quality excites me and motivates me to continually make better hay each and every year.”

Here are lessons he's learned:

Listen to experts

Pierson has profited from advice he's received from more experienced hay growers who share his interest in boosting hay quality. They include his father, grandfather, neighbors and members of the hay and forage association.

“It's the kind of knowledge that provides good security for staying in the hay industry,” says Pierson, who's in his second term as association president.

Be realistic

Rather than basing production practices and decisions on conditions he'd like to see, Pierson deals with what he sees in the field — and acts accordingly.

Feed the roots first

Instead of aiming for big tonnage the first year of an alfalfa stand, he concentrates on producing a strong root system to support future growth. To encourage deeper roots, he delays the initial first cutting and takes it only when the soil surface is dry to minimize compaction. The result, Pierson says, is a healthier stand with less thinning and fewer weed problems.

Cut higher

He used to set his wind-rower to cut at a height of ¾”. He's since raised that to 1-1½”. The higher stubble holds the windrows off the ground for better air circulation and faster drying, Pierson notes.

Handle it carefully

Pierson added automotive gas shocks to the pivot points of his basket-style rakes. The improved flotation results in gentler hay handling, helps keep out dirt, reduces rake wear and allows for faster ground speeds.

Be patient

In summer, he normally bales hay four to five days after cutting. But in fall, with cooler temperatures and shorter days, he may wait nine to 14 days to make top-quality hay without heat damage and mold. Last year's contest-winning hay cured for 16 days in October.

Bale with the dew

To gauge proper moisture levels for baling, he scratches alfalfa stems with his thumbnail in late afternoon.

“If I can't scrape off a strip longer than half an inch and it keeps flaking off, the hay is ready to bale when I get the dew point I want,” says Pierson, who makes small bales. “I'll bale with the morning dew to keep the windrow soft and with 18% or less moisture in the bale chamber. That makes a tight bale with perfect leaf retention and an attractive aroma that stays cured for years.”