Boost forage quality while sun shines

cut hay

So far this year it has been favorable getting first cutting forages harvested in a timely fashion. Often the weather is the major challenge for getting first cutting forages made at the optimum stage of maturity.

The goal is to harvest at the boot stage for grasses and late bud or early bloom for legumes. If you have legume-grass mixtures, you will want to base your mowing time on the maturity level of the grasses.

This is especially true for first cutting; orchard grass matures faster than legumes.

As forages will have a greater loss in total digestible nutrient, or TDN, and in protein if harvest is delayed 10 days past the ideal maturity stage.

An alfalfa-grass mixture cut when the alfalfa is at the late bud to early bloom generally has a 65% TDN and 18% protein. Compared to a similar forage stand harvested at half bloom or later containing 48-50% TDN and 12% protein.

Best management practices

To maximize drying time, mow mid-morning after the dew has dried off. Although sugar content is higher if forages are mowed mid-afternoon, more often we are needing to maximize drying time due to questionable weather conditions.

Set cutting height to 3-4 inches. This helps with earlier regrowth, stand longevity and allows better air flow for drying. Mower conditioners should be set to crimp stems every 3-4 inches. Make the mowing swath as wide as possible, at least 70% of the cutting width.

To minimize leaf loss, tedding or raking should be done when forage moisture content is around 40%. While raking, try to avoid soil contamination in the forage; soil is the main way Clostridium bacteria are introduced. This is especially important when harvesting baleage or haylage. Adjust rakes so that they have the minimum down pressure required to move the forage into a windrow.

A forage test for ash content can determine if high levels of soil are present. Ash values greater than 11% indicate soil contamination and higher risk for clostridial fermentation.

The ideal baling moisture content for dry hay ranges from 15 to 20% depending upon what type of bale is being made. Minimum moisture content should be 20% for small rectangular, 18% for large round and 17% for large rectangular bales.

Baleage is typically baled at 45-65% moisture and wrapped with at least six layers of 1 mm plastic. Getting the moisture right is one of the best ways to inhibit or prevent clostridial fermentation. Estimating moisture content in the forage before baling is possible, but no method is both fast and accurate. Haylage is typically harvested using a silage chopper at 60-70% moisture and packed into a bunker, silo or bagged.


For wrapped or bagged forages immediately repair holes and tears in plastic, especially in the first month when most of the pH drop and lactic acid production occurs. Dry baled forages stored indoors should be monitored closely for the first few weeks of storage, especially if moisture content at harvest was higher than 20%.

Outside stored bales typically have the highest losses due to moisture at baling, amount of rain and snow during storage, soil drainage, amount of space between bales and quality of the bale integrity. The easiest storage loss to detect and has been measured by many researchers is total dry matter loss. This is weight lost during storage. These have ranged from 6 to 15%, with most being closer to the 15%. The other common loss is the digestibility of the weathered forage on the outer edges of the bale. Combined with dry matter loss, the typical round bale will lose 25% of the feeding value.

Bales should be stored on well drained areas, a minimum of 3 feet apart, avoid storing under trees. Storing bales under tarps or inside greatly reduces forage loss and helps maintain quality.


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The author is an agriculture and natural resources educator for OSU Extension in Perry County. Send questions or comments to or in c/o Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.



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