Make hay when the sun shines, but do it fast!
Many people are still trying to make their first cutting of hay around Ohio. We had some good hay drying weather in early May, but recently it has been a real challenge to get hay dried between the rains.
Besides the hay fields, many of our pastures are very tall and headed out now. Making hay on some of those acres may be a good option for many people to get back in control of the pasture growth for the remainder of the season.
So how can we deal with making hay and getting it dry between rains? This is indeed a challenge at times, but there are some proven techniques to speed drying that can help shorten the window between cutting and storing the forage.
Haylage vs. hay
Consider making silage or haylage instead of dry hay, whether it is stored in silos or bagged silage or as wrapped bales.
Since haylage is preserved at higher moisture contents, it is a lot easier to get it to a proper dry matter content for safe preservation than it is to make dry hay.
Proper dry matter content for chopping haylage can often be achieved within 24 hours as compared to three to four days for dry hay.
Proper dry matter content for silage ranges from 30 to 50 percent (50 to 70 percent moisture) depending on the structure used, while wrapped balage should be dried to 40 to 55 percent dry matter (45 to 60 percent moisture).
Compare that to dry hay that should be baled at 80 to 85 percent dry matter (15 to 20 percent moisture), depending on the size of the bale package.
Faster drying of cut forage begins with using a well-adjusted mower-conditioner to cause crimping/cracking of the stem (roller conditioners) or abrasion to the stems (impeller conditioners).
At least 90 percent of the stems should be cracked or crimped with roller conditioners or show some mechanical abrasion when using impeller conditioners.
Exposure to the sun is the single most important weather factor to speed drying. So the trick is to make the sun shine on as much of the cut forage as possible.
This can be done by making the windrows as wide as possible, especially this time of year when our dry weather windows are pretty short.
Wide windrows provide for maximum forage surface area to be exposed to the sunlight.
Think wide, not piles
I once heard someone say that you can’t dry your laundry in a pile, so why can you expect to dry hay that way? It is best if the swath width is about 70 percent of the actual cut area.
The mowers on the market vary in how wide a windrow they can make, but even those that make narrow windrows have been modified to spread the windrow wider.
Details can be found in articles at the website mentioned above.
Recent research studies and experience have shown that drying forage in wide swaths can significantly speed up drying. Faster drying in wide swaths results in less chance of rain damage, and it produces higher quality forage.
Studies reported by the University of Wisconsin showed that wide swaths (72 percent of the cut width) result in lower NDF and higher energy in the stored forage.
When making haylage, if drying conditions are good, rake multiple wide swaths into a windrow just before chopping.
For hay, if drying conditions are good, merge or rake multiple wide swaths into a windrow the next morning when the forage is 40 to 60 percent moisture to avoid excessive leaf loss.
Sometimes the rain just comes quicker than we have time for making dry hay. As mentioned above, making haylage helps with this problem, but another option is to use a preservative.
The most common and effective preservatives are based on proprionic acid. This acid can be caustic to equipment, but many buffered proprionic preservatives are available on the market that reduce this problem.
The preservatives inhibit mold growth and so allow safe baling a moisture contents a little higher than the normal range for dry hay.
Carefully follow the manufacturer directions and application rates when using preservatives.
Watch wet bales
If you do happen to bale hay at higher moisture contents than desired, keep a close watch on it for two to three weeks.
You should invest in a hay temperature probe and monitor the internal temperature of the hay during the first three weeks.
Every year, someone’s barn burns down because of spontaneous combustion of wet hay. So if you have hay that is on the wet side, keep it outside or in a well-ventilated area.
Don’t stack wet hay either, because that prevents the heat and moisture left in the hay from escaping.
What to look for
It is normal for hay to go through a “sweat” in the few days after baling. Internal temperatures of 110 F in the first five days after baling are quite common in our region and are not a concern.
Hay bale temperatures of 120 to 130 F will likely result in mold growth and will make the protein in the hay less available to the animals.
But at those temperatures, there still is not a danger of fire. The concern is if mold growth causes the temperature to go even higher.
If the temperature in the hay continues to rise, reaching 160 to 170 F, then there is cause for serious concern. At these elevated temperatures, other chemical reactions begin to occur that elevate the temperature much higher, resulting in spontaneous combustion of the hay in a relatively short period of time.
My hope is that a disastrous hay fire never happens to you or someone you know! It can be avoided by careful attention to the management practices I’ve outlined here and, of course, with a little cooperation from the sun!
My best wishes for quick, safe, and successful hay making so you can turn your attention back to the joys and rewards of managing your grazing operation this season!
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