Beef producers wondering when is the best time to harvest prairie hay may actually be wise to use two cutting schedules, says Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska extension forage specialist.
To Anderson, prairie hay is mostly warm-season grasses like the bluestems and gramas, indiangrass, switchgrass, lovegrass or prairie sandreed. “There might be some wheatgrass or junegrass or other cool-season species present, but if this hay field is fully green and growing by mid-April in Nebraska, it’s not what I’m calling prairie hay,” he says.
One factor to consider when timing prairie hay harvest is stand persistence, says Anderson. Producer experience and university research show that stands decline rapidly if it’s consistently harvested twice a year. Hay quality is another factor. Prairie hay cut in late June or early July might have over 10% protein and 65% TDN. But by August the protein might drop to as low as 5% and TDN to as low as 45%.
Other practical considerations might be your difficulty harvesting all your prairie hay at once and your potential need for both high-quality hay for young stock and average-quality hay for dry cows.
“What I think this means is that most operations should have at least two different prairie hay areas,” he says. “Harvest one area in late June or early July for high quality and again in October if sufficient regrowth occurs. Harvest the other area just once in early August for high yield. Then switch areas the next year.
“Prairie hay is a valuable resource,” Anderson adds. “Extra care can assure long-term production of highly useable hay.”