When his alfalfa's ready to cut, Henry Lund doesn't look at the sky.

"If it's ready, I cut it - regardless of the weather report," says the 81-year-old Arlington, SD, grower. "The minute you walk away from that field when it's ready to harvest, the alfalfa's going to mature and go downhill.

"Sometimes rain does not hurt it that much," he continues. "But if you leave it, you're hurting the quality of that cutting and possibly the quantity of the next cutting."

Lund relies on scissor cuttings from each field to determine when it's time to cut. He dries the samples with a blow dryer and sends them to a lab in Brookings for analysis. When the relative feed value reaches 175, he starts cutting.

His approach to making high-quality hay has earned him numerous awards in state and national contests. At last spring's American Forage & Grassland Council annual conference in Indianapolis, he won three first-place awards in the organization's contest. He also has placed second, third and fourth in the commercial hay division of the World's Forage Analysis Superbowl and has won the South Dakota Forage Bowl more times than he can recall.

Over 40 hay contest plaques and trophies decorate the walls of his home office.

Lund's always been interested in harvesting high-quality hay. "I milked cows for 45 years, and I could tell what I was feeding them just by looking at the milk check."

He gets a lot of phone calls and visits from younger hay growers.

"The first thing I tell them is that I don't always make contest hay because that's impossible. But you can do a lot of little things that can add quality."

Lund, with his son Gary, grows around 350 acres of alfalfa in rotation with corn, soybeans and wheat. They also put up prairie hay, bromegrass and millet hay. Alfalfa is mixed with lower-quality forages and fed to their large beef herd.

"By grinding and blending low-quality forage with high-quality alfalfa, we get a satisfactory ration for all of the cattle," he explains. "I couldn't do that if I didn't have this high-quality hay. I would have to buy the protein."

Lund cuts with a mower-conditioner and lets the hay dry for two to three days in a wide swath. He rakes two windrows together when the moisture's about 40%.

"A swath gets too flat. Getting the hay 2 to 3' in the air makes it cure faster."

Most years, they take four cuttings and harvest it in big round and small rectangular bales. Lund's winning contest entries are usually taken from round bales.

"With the heavy windrows, we slow the tractor and round baler way down," he explains. "At such low speeds, the hay isn't agitated very much. With a square baler, the plunger shears leaves off."

He uses preservatives when necessary, but never on hay that could be a contest contender because "it lightens the color."

Alfalfa stands yield about 4 1/2 tons/acre and last four years. They're direct seeded at 20 lbs of seed/acre using any of six varieties Lund prefers. Soil fertility is checked religiously and adjusted as needed.