May is when Missouri producers are supposed to start cutting hay – when plants have the fewest seed heads and leaves contain the most nutrients. In reality, though, many cut in June or even July – well past prime quality.
But after this year’s May rains kept growers from putting up quality hay, Rob Kallenbach, a University of Missouri (MU) Extension forage specialist, says April may be the best month to harvest hay.
Kallenbach came up with that conclusion after watching graziers’ use of the MU Extension grazing wedge. The growers record their grass grazing and haymaking progress on the grazing-wedge Web site.
“Graziers who baled hay in April are ahead of everyone in making quality hay for winter feeding,” he says. “But cutting early will take a change in thinking for some.” Some may resist the idea because grass in April won’t look tall enough to cut, Kallenbach admits. “They think they will make more hay if they wait, but I’d rather have one bale of high-quality April hay than two bales of bad late-June hay. It’s the difference between nutritious feed and sawdust.”
For years Kallenbach has taught that hay should be harvested before grass sets seed. Once seeds form, the plant nutrients move from the leaves and into the seed. This lowers the quality of the hay to be fed next winter. And grazing cattle don’t like seed heads. Even worse, fescue seed heads contain an endophyte toxin that cuts pounds of gain or pounds of milk.
Using the grazing wedge to keep records helps graziers know which forage paddocks to harvest first. Farmers measure and record pounds of dry matter per acre in each paddock once a week. The wedge’s software highlights in red any paddocks that are past their prime. The goal is to harvest hay before quality starts to decline.
Producers are finding that, with spring’s rapid growth, about half the pastures in a year-round grazing system need be harvested for hay to maintain grazing quality. “Too many producers lose the chance to make quality feed by not seeing which paddocks need to be harvested first,” Kallenbach says.