Here we are once again at the beginning of another hay season.  Hay producers anxiously sit at the starting line glued to their smartphone weather app or favorite tv weather-man waiting for that golden window to get their grass mowed, dried, baled and put up before a rain.  Often this process is not so easy.  Many producers struggle with timing their hay cuttings to get up their grass without it getting rained on or being too mature.  Because of this battle in timing, there is often a lot of hay fed in the winter that is too low in energy and digestibility.   So, let’s take a bit of advice from Albert Einstein who said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Let’s look at how we can put forage quality first.

What defines a high-quality forage?   Forage that is highly digestible (i.e. high Total Digestible Nutrients) and that large amounts can be consumed (i.e. high Dry Matter Intake) is universally considered to be of high quality.  There are numerous factors that contribute to forage quality, but let’s focus on the most important. 

Forage maturity is the most important factor affecting forage quality.   When rainfall events are frequent, forage maturity is often sacrificed.  Cuttings are put off for weeks and grasses are overly mature when cut.  Young, leafy vegetative growth has a higher level of digestible nutrients and protein, which declines as the plants progress toward maturity.  Older forage has fewer leaves, more stems, and a higher fiber content.   More lignin is deposited as the plant matures.   Lignin causes the plant to be more indigestible.  Therefore, it is critical to harvest the crop whenever the forage reaches the recommended stage for harvest.   Delaying a harvest beyond the recommended maturity stage will result in forage that is less digestible and much less capable of being consumed at a high rate of intake.  For annual ryegrass, the first harvest should be at boot stage and then at 10-12 inches of regrowth.  Tall fescue should also be first harvested at boot or early head stage and then again at 4-6 weeks of regrowth.  For bermudagrass, the first cutting should be at 12-16 inches of growth and then subsequent cuttings at 3.5-5 weeks intervals.  Of course, regrowth is highly dependent on fertility and soil moisture.

There are other factors that contribute to forage quality including forage species, bale storage, rain events, moisture at baling, variety, and fertilization.  Many management factors contribute to the production of high-quality forage. Successfully harvesting hay is a highly detailed process that takes planning and attention to make sure that the forage collected is of the highest quality possible. However, the only way to actually know what the quality is to conduct a forage test.  So, let’s stop the insanity, learn from the past, and plan for a profitable and productive hay season that focuses on putting up the highest quality forage possible. 

For more information about producing high quality, contact the extension office at 706-795-2281 or email