More dairy-quality hay can be harvested if growers stagger field harvest order rather than cut fields in the same order cutting after cutting.

So says Steve Orloff, University of California extension farm advisor in Yreka.

“Ordinarily, the order in which growers cut fields is based on habit, proximity of fields to their headquarters or the dryness of fields. They will use that same order from the first cutting to the second to the remainder of the season,” he says.

But second- and third-cut fields can be harvested based on when some fields are at optimum dairy quality. The other fields can be cut based on maximum yield. The outcome of the entire harvest: the same yields but increased quality.

Orloff and UC-Davis forage specialist Dan Putnam studied staggered vs. sequential harvests in the Intermountain Region in their state. Using six plots for each cutting strategy, they cut the first harvest in a certain order — simulating a whole-farm situation and the time it would take to harvest one field after another. Sequential plots were cut in the same order at each cutting.

The order on staggered plots, however, changed at second cutting. Plots that had been cut fourth, fifth and sixth were harvested first, second and third at a relatively immature stage for high quality. The other three plots — the first three harvested at first cutting — had a longer growing period and were harvested last for maximum yield.

At third cutting, harvest order returned to the order used for the first cutting, again making use of optimum harvest time for quality on half the plots, and yield on the other.

The results: total yield for the season was similar for sequential and staggered harvests. Quality differences between sequential and staggered harvests showed up on the second cut: “We had three of the six fields test dairy quality using the staggered approach. On the sequential fields, we didn't get any dairy-quality hay on second cutting.

“We also had an improvement on third cutting; two fields tested dairy quality on the sequential, but on the staggered approach, all of the fields tested either supreme or premium.”