Cutting orchardgrass shorter than 4" will sap its reserves, slowing regrowth and limiting future nutrient intake, warns Paul Craig, Dauphin County, PA, Extension educator.
"We see declining orchardgrass stands and longevity," he says of growers' fields in his area. "That's become an issue that we see with new equipment … that scalps the top of the soil and maybe leaves an inch or two in cutting height.
"With orchardgrass and most of our tall grasses, that lower 4-5" are where they store their energy, unlike clover or alfalfa, which has that deep taproot with the crown. The low cutting lowers and lowers the reserves of the plant and affects the growth and development of the root system. If we run into a drought (or insects invade), we can really knock back these plant stands."
He advises adjusting harvesting equipment to ensure that 4-5" of grass growth remains.
Craig is also concerned about what he called an "acid-roof effect" on grass stands, caused by topdressing fields with urea and/or ammonium sulfate. He suggests that growers check soil pH levels before establishing stands.
"A generation ago, they'd talk about planting a stand of orchardgrass, and it would be there for 10 to 15 to 20 years; now we're talking four or five years. What is causing this? Very rarely in agriculture do we put our finger on one thing and say that's what's causing the problem. It's a whole package kind of thing."
Thunderstorms have made hay harvesting difficult for growers in Craig's area the past couple of weeks, he says, and the rain keeps coming. "Our alfalfa is just about where you'd want it – at bud stage right now. The orchardgrass and a lot of our early season grasses – they're past prime where they should have been cut. It's ugly."
With supply down and prices high, dairymen in the area should buy ahead, Craig advises. "We've seen just unbelievable hay prices. Two weeks ago, at the hay markets down in Lancaster County, they were selling hay for $400/ton." Only one load sold for that amount, probably bought by a horse owner, he adds.
The first cutting of orchardgrass hay, which was around $90/ton last year, he estimates, was going for $215-230/ton in the area.
"Golly, with the $7 corn, I've seen more hay fields that got burned off last year and planting to corn this year. I don't know where this hay market is going to be next year," Craig says.