The majority of the hay harvested as dry hay or haylage in many areas of the U.S. is some variety of grass. Even though alfalfa is often revered as the king of hays, it only grows well in selected areas of the country. However, alfalfa tends to be expensive to plant, maintain and manage, and depending on what region of the country it’s growing, requires more water than grass. Alfalfa is also very sensitive to over-watering, and a stand can be easily damaged or ruined if a field is not adequately drained. Alfalfa does not tolerate colder climates as well as grass. Fields of grass, when well established, overwinter well and will last for many years so long as they are adequately fertilized and not overly stressed (allowing weeds to become established). Overall, good grass hay and haylage is a heartier and more economical forage to grow and harvest.
Timing is everything when it comes to making good grass hay or haylage. Grass is a living organism that’s genetically pre-programmed to complete a life-cycle. In and of itself, grass has only one purpose – to grow, mature and reproduce. Within the greater context of a more complex biosystem, grasses provide food to a host of different animal species and habitat to many more. In the natural world, grasses provide nutrition to wandering or grazing animals when they need it most during the spring and summer. Except for tropical grasses, grasses are seasonal, becoming dormant during the winter months in both hemispheres.
In modern times commercialized and mechanized agriculture have allowed farmers to harvest, preserve and store grasses, making it available as animal feed all year long. How and when grasses are harvested for hay or haylage depends on what market(s) a farmer is participating in, what alternative or competing forages are available and, to some extent, the weather.
The higher the protein content in any grass, the better an animal will perform – beef or dairy. Aim for 18 to 20 percent crude protein levels in hay that’s going to be fed to ruminants. The key to that protein is keeping the grass young. A trip across the pasture with the mower and baler may yield only 50 bales per acre. But the hay will test.
In the horse hay market, high- protein hay should be avoided. Horses don’t require high-protein diets, and the average pleasure horse engaged in minimal or light exercise requires a diet of about 12 percent crude protein. Horse hay should be clean and free of weeds, dust and mold. This type of hay can be a little more mature and, so long as the hay has good color and smells sweet, the horse owner will buy it.
All equine and ruminant diets require forage. During recent years with the reasonably priced commodity byproducts, good grass hay has often been passed by in favor of the price and convenience of other feeds. Things have changed. In today’s volatile feed markets, grass has become a very valuable commodity. Managed correctly, grass hay can provide a significant portion of an animal’s nutritional requirements for much less cost compared to current grain and byproduct prices.
Grass requires fertilizing with both nitrogen and potassium. Urea products are popular, and potassium should be applied based on soil conditions. During the past couple of years commercial fertilizers have doubled and even tripled in price due to the price of oil. Many farmers are switching to composted cow or chicken fertilizers if they are available.
The economic value of grass is completely dependent upon quality. As with all forages, the stage of maturity has the greatest effect on quality. A young, immature grass plant has a higher leaf-to-stem ratio. Leaves in a plant store protein and sugars that are more readily digestible in animal stomachs. As a plant grows, becoming taller, the stem must become stronger and makes up more of the plant’s total mass. Stems are made up of more complex compounds called cellulose and lignin. The more cellulytic and lignified the stem becomes, the less nutritional value it will have. The more leaf material as opposed to stem available in a pound of hay means more dietary energy and protein available each time an animal takes a bite.
The nutritional quality of all grass, regardless of whether it’s put up as hay or as haylage, is dependent upon the fiber content. Fiber and protein content are inversely related, so the higher the fiber content, the lower the digestibility. Farmers who look to get the most tonnage per acre from a cutting are generally baling hay that’s overly mature and high in fiber. They should focus on baling grass hay when it’s still below their knees. By the time grass is flowering or going to seed, the plant has lost half its nutritional value. The key to making good, high-quality grass hay or haylage is dependent upon how immature the plant is when it’s harvested. The more stemmy or woody grasses become, the lower both their economic and nutritional values will be.
For dairy cow and beef markets, higher nutritive values are always desirable. In many locations in the U.S., high-quality dairy, beef and horse hay is a scarce commodity. A farmer who can produce good hay will reap the economic rewards of efficient milk production or daily pounds of gain. The grower who can consistently put up high-quality hay will always find a customer knocking at his door and be in a position to ask top price for his product. HG