It’s ground zero for timothy hay

By Mike Rankin

Perhaps nowhere in the U.S. is the production of timothy hay given greater reverence than the Pacific Northwest, specifically the Columbia River Basin. The region also happens to provide ideal growing conditions for the grass forage crop — a high elevation coupled with a relatively arid climate.

Steve Fransen, Washington State University forage agronomist, has seen more than his fair share of good and bad timothy hay. The Prosser-based educator knows what it takes to produce a premium timothy crop for export, and he shared his management tips at last week’s National Hay Association Convention, which was held in Pasco, Wash.

“There are no USDA market hay standards for timothy export,” Fransen said. “As such, the marketplace has created its own standards. The characteristics are pretty well understood in the industry and by our foreign customers,” he added.

Fransen explained that the market recognizes three grades of timothy for horses (Premium, #1, and #2) and three grades for cattle, with the latter being of lower overall quality and value than its corresponding horse grade.

“Premium Horse grade represents the very best of the timothy hay crop,” Franson noted. “It’s characterized as having a bright, natural green color; full seedhead expression; no brown leaves; no mix of foreign grasses; and packaged in a three-tie bale. Effectively, the product must be perfect and it only represents about the top 5 percent of exported timothy.”

How does a grower produce “ideal” timothy hay?

Fransen said that both management and good growing conditions come into play when producing Premium Horse timothy. He noted that sunlight must penetrate into the lower canopy to maintain photosynthesis and keep bottom leaves in a green, healthy condition.

“Brown leaves can develop for several reasons,” Fransen explained. “Though too much shading is one cause, brown stripe disease and potassium deficiency also result in leaf browning.” He said that the goal is to keep the crop a healthy, green color and then maintain that color by minimizing the time between cutting and baling; the crop also must be stored under cover.

Timothy is unique in that it stores sugars as large fructan molecules in bulb-like structures called corms and in the lower 3 inches of plant stems. The corms are actually underground internodes that form and develop in the fall; for this reason, Fransen emphasized the need for prescribed fall fertilization of phosphorus and potassium. This ensures maximum corm, tiller, and root development for the next year’s crop.

“To produce export quality timothy with maximum yield and value, management has to begin in the fall, not the spring,” Fransen said. “Seedheads that eventually develop from fall-formed tillers will be longer than those from tillers that are initiated in the spring.”

Don’t take a shortcut

Timothy is usually cut after seedhead emergence and elongation. Unlike most other cool-season grasses, Fransen explained that the forage quality of timothy doesn’t decline at a rapid rate. This is attributed to parenchyma cells that make up the cell well structure. These cells are thin and easily digested by the consuming animal.

Fransen recommends tedding timothy four to six hours after cutting. He then suggests tedding at least two more times the day after cutting. On Day 3, the crop is raked and baled. “The cut forage can’t lay out there forever and a day if you want to make green, export quality timothy,” Fransen emphasized. An optimum green color is also enhanced by adequate nitrogen and sulfur fertility.

Timothy sheds most of its root system both during the winter and again in the summer. The warm-weather shedding begins soon after the summer equinox, when days start to become shorter. Fransen noted that this is why timothy should not be cut lower than a 3- to 4-inch stubble height. The lower stems, which are high in energy reserves, will enable the plants to initiate new growth while at the same time the root system is slowly dying back. Cutting stands too short will prompt plants to cease growth and go dormant.

Timothy is a unique forage grass with an equally unique end user. The price received for the final product is largely based on subjective and visual criteria. However, growers in the Pacific Northwest are blessed with an optimum timothy-growing environment and continue to capture the premium price inherent with the significant export sales of this cool-season grass.