"If I'm not late, I’m not coming.”

I’ve used this line multiple times over the years to humorously make fun of my propensity for being late. Being a little late in life’s many offerings usually doesn’t change the tilt or rotation of the earth. In fact, some people view “fashionably late” as the preferred practice in selected instances.

Of course, there are situations when being late might result in negative consequences. I recall once having to meet two co-workers at a rendezvous point so we could carpool to an agronomy field day event. Per usual, I was five minutes late, and when I arrived at the designated meeting point, my co-workers were nowhere to be found. I waited another 10 minutes before deciding that they had deserted me. In driving solo to the event, it occurred to me that one of the co-workers was a career Marine reserve officer. In his mind and training, late was never an option. I didn’t make that mistake again, at least when current or former military personnel were involved.

Being late for dinner or a meeting is one thing, but late farm operations can have significant economic consequences. As we approach the month of May, when the first cutting of forage begins to be made for a wide swath of the country, a late trip with the mower to the field can have a huge impact on the year’s profit margin; it doesn’t matter whether the hay is being sold or fed. This is true from Maryland to California and for alfalfa, tall fescue, or winter rye.

Many regions have experienced some unusually warm weather in the early going of this spring. Harvest equipment may need to be field-ready a bit earlier than normal. Historically, attempts to gauge first-cut forage quality based solely on calendar date or maturity stage have failed miserably because of annual fluctuations in the growing environment.

Forage that grows during the spring is unique in many ways. First, the growing environment is like no other during the growing season. Temperatures during most of the spring growth cycle are likely going to be cool, at least compared to mid-summer. That’s good from a forage quality standpoint, but as harvest time nears, weather conditions can be cool, hot, wet, dry, or some combination thereof. The possible weather extremes as forage approaches harvest makes it difficult to predict forage quality. At mid-bud or early heading stages, forage quality could range from rocket fuel one year to cordwood the next. Never underestimate the impact of growing environment on forage quality.

Being late in the field for first cutting can result in first-cut fiber digestibility being the worst of the year when it should top the forage inventory. It’s the cooler growing conditions that often make it the best of the season. If you’re late and hot weather sets in, or the harvest is delayed by extended wet weather, the rate of first crop fiber digestibility decline is unmatched, being much more rapid than subsequent cuttings. This makes the optimum spring harvest window for grasses and legumes narrower compared to subsequent growth cycles. Hence, a timely first cut is essential if high forage quality is the primary objective.

For alfalfa or alfalfa-grass mixtures, several approaches are available to estimate forage quality at any given time point. Predictive equations for alfalfa quality (PEAQ), growing degree accumulation, or taking fresh cuttings from the field for lab analysis are all used. None of these methods are perfect, but they do prevent major cutting decision errors.

The first cutting not only offers the potential of the best forage quality for the year, but it also provides the greatest percentage of dry matter yield compared to subsequent harvests. Similar to forage quality that declines at a faster rate than subsequent cuttings, forage dry matter accumulates more rapidly. Cut on time and you have a lot of high-quality forage. If you’re too late, then the result will be mountains of coarse, low-quality fodder. The yield versus quality trade-off is never more relevant than with first-cut forage.

Finally, in the case of perennial forage species, the date of first cutting sets the pace for the rest of the harvest season. It often dictates how many future cuttings will be taken, the interval between cuttings, and how late into the fall the last cutting will be harvested. It’s the only cutting of the year when there is no number of days since the previous harvest.

The decision of when to cut first crop is wide open, but the consequences of that decision are far reaching from a livestock performance and economic standpoint. Don’t be late. •

Happy foraging,

This article appeared in the April/May 2024 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.