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The Balancing Act of High-Quality Hay Production

Posted: Jul 18, 2022

With John McGregor from the Manitoba Forage & Grassland Association

For most growers, forage production is a balancing act. While they want high yields, they’re also hoping for superior quality nutrients when they take the crop off the field. That is especially true with a forage crop like hay, says John McGregor, an extension support specialist with the Manitoba Forage & Grassland Association.

So, how can producers find that sweet spot between quantity and quality? McGregor says a lot of it comes down to what nutrients a herd requires and what a crop can provide. “It really becomes this balancing act between producing the quality they require for their animals versus the quantity they need to keep them fed during that winter feeding period,” he says.

McGregor says hay producers should watch for over or under grazing in their fields this summer. An under-grazed field is a concern because once hay reaches its maturity, it mostly stops growing. Mature hay still makes for excellent feed but isn’t likely to experience much regrowth. The key at that point, is to keep the plant in a vegetative state by having cattle graze on the tops or by mowing them to promote new leaf growth. Over-grazing can be just as big of a problem because the plant must start over from the ground up, which extends the crop’s rest period from one grazing to the next.

Scouting plays a key role in balancing the quality and quantity of hay. Having boots on the ground is an important part of any scouting plan, with the right time to scout often determined by Mother Nature and the growing conditions during any given season. Manitoba producers can use the MFGA’s Green Gold program to predict when alfalfa hay stands are at their highest quality. The program uses reports from producers across the province during the months of May and June that can help growers determine when to start cutting their hay.

When it comes to harvesting, McGregor notes, “There isn’t one best time for everybody.”

In the case of dairy or feedlot farmers, they will want to harvest their hay while it’s still relatively young, prioritizing the protein and energy levels in their hay to encourage milk production and calf growth in their herd. On the other hand, cow-calf operators with dry cows in the early stages of gestation won’t need their hay to be high in protein, so their hay can be harvested later in the season to prioritize a boost in yield.

Some forages have been bred to deliver higher-quality profiles like Surge Hi-Gest™ alfalfa, which provides growers more harvest flexibility. Improvements in fibre digestibility, crude protein and overall forage quality allow producers the option to adjust to aggressive harvest systems that aim to maximize yield and quality, or to a more relaxed schedule focused on tonnage that still delivers higher-quality hay than traditional varieties.  

After harvest, McGregor’s advice to hay producers is to make sure their crop is either baled or turned into silage soon after it’s been cut to prevent weathering or water damage.

“We probably lose more production to spoilage from the time when the hay is cut and laying in the field before it’s baled or put up as silage than anything else,” he says.

“It basically comes down to good storage management and quick drying techniques in the field so that once the hay is cut, it’s not laying on the field for two or three or four days and subject to periodic rain or showers,” he says.

McGregor adds that hay producers have to test their feed crop to determine its nutritional content to ensure their herd’s nutritional needs are properly met and that the best time to do this testing is just before the winter feeding season. This way, the results will most accurately reflect what the livestock is eating and whether its composition has changed since it was harvested.

The Central Testing Laboratory in Winnipeg is the main testing facility in Manitoba. There are also several testing facilities in Alberta and B.C., as well as U.S.-based test centres like Dairy One Forage Lab and Dairyland Laboratories. Many producers choose their testing facility based on which feed companies or private consultants they work with or labs they have relationships with already.

Some producers may wish to sell their hay to other farmers, including those in other markets. While there isn’t much difference in quality restrictions across most export markets, McGregor says it’s important for producers to be aware of what the needs are in each potential market.

“It can vary from year to year as far as what the market wants. Sometimes they want high quality, like if you’re going into the dairy market, but if you’re marketing into an area that’s low on feed, they just want feed,” McGregor says. “It really comes back to producers who are growing for the export market looking at what the situation’s like in the area they’re wanting to go into and trying to produce feed for that market’s needs.”

For more forage tips, or help to select forages to achieve your hay production goals, contact your BrettYoung Regional Account Manager.

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