By Ray Hicks
Screven County CEC
If you were like me, growing up around the farm, you couldn’t wait till you got old enough to have the responsibility of cutting the hay crop. Riding that tractor and mower, smelling that fresh mowed grass, knowing that the horses and cows were going to enjoy that hay in the winter when there was snow on the ground. Your chest bulged out- you were the MAN!
There are a lot of factors that go into determining when the best time to cut hay is. First is the type of forage you have and its maturity. For simplicity we are going to talk about bermudagrass. The first cutting in the spring should be when grass has greened up and reached 12 – 16 inches tall. This should clean up all the old growth of winter weeds and such. Then each subsequent cutting is at 3.5 to 5 week intervals. This is dependent on fertilizer and moisture. Cutting the forage at the optimal maturity will help maximize available nutrient content and minimize the fiber content that makes forages indigestible.
Next, consider what time of day is ideal to mow hay. Now as for nutrient value, the plants sugar content is highest at dusk but because of moisture we usually don’t want to cut hay at night. The best time is to start as soon as dew is off in the morning. You are not going to lose that much sugar content and you will maximize drying time.
What about tedding and raking? When you mow make sure your cutter is laying the widest swath possible. This enhances drying. Then if hay is thick you can come back within 2-4 hours and ted it to break up clumps and increase air movement. Don’t over work the hay, especially if it is alfalfa or clover. You lose leaf material. If you need to ted the next day, start when there is dew on the hay to reduce leaf shatter.
Summertime rain showers make any hay producer cringe. Constantly watching the weather forecast to decide on whether to mow or not to mow can make anyone crazy. Getting a rain shower on a cutting of hay that’s been mowed can reduce nutrient content. If we get a ½ inch of rain on hay we have a 1% drop in TDN. However, research has shown that for every day after 4 weeks of maturity we lose .5% point of TDN. So a week’s delay in cutting due to rain would result in a 3.5% drop in TDN. Bottom line is – if the hay is ready put it on the ground.
The last timing to consider is drying time. Making sure that the hay has reached the optimum moisture level will help avoid spoilage losses and reduce the risk of spontaneous combustion. Moisture content for round bales is 15%, and square bales are 18%. Make sure to check this before baling and before storage to avoid fire hazard.
So now you are all grown up and you have to make the decision as to when to cut the hay. It is still great to run the tractor and smell the hay and your chest can still bulge out.