The quality of your hay impacts the yield and quality of what your livestock provides you, so it is definitely worth while to invest in the quality of your hay. Not sure how to do that? We list some tips on how to make good quality hay below.
On one hand, the best way to make quality hay is to make sure that it does not get rained on. But apart from that, here is how you can make high-quality hay:
1. All hay is not equal
Hay falls into several categories: grass, legume, mixed (grass and legume) and cereal grain straw (such as oat hay). Cereal grain crops, especially oats, can make good hay when cut while still green and growing, rather than waiting for the seed heads to mature for grain. Because of the problem of bloat, the use of lucerne in the form of hay is a popular practice in South Africa.
Bloat is a type of indigestion that cattle suffer from after eating certain types of hay, and the national department of agriculture characterises it by “an excessive accumulation of gas in the rumen”.
Lucerne (also known as alfalfa) silage has more protein, calcium and phosphorous than some other silages, but less total digestible nutrients. It must be remembered that full-grown lucerne has a lower energy and digestible protein content than young lucerne.
2. Soil and fertiliser
Do you want the good news or the bad news first?
Good news: Hay – be it grass or alfalfa or a mix – responds incredibly well to fertiliser. Bad news, hay needs far more fertiliser than you think.
While alfalfa or other legumes will fix their own nitrogen, phosphorus needs must be met in order to make full use of the nitrogen, according to Top Crop Manager. The first step in producing quality hay is to ensure the soil has a healthy mineral balance and to adopt a balanced fertiliser programme.
3. Cut hay at the right time
This is one of those subjective points, but it is really the most important if you want to make good quality hay.
The growth or cutting stage directly influences the nutritional value of hay. Beef Magazine suggests early cut hay forage is more nutritious than late cut hay forage and it’s all about finding the sweet spot between cutting length and forage quality.
This also depends on your livestock that will be feeding on the hay. For dairy cows, the bud stage of alfalfa is better, but for beef producers, top yield with adequate quality comes just slightly later, at early bloom or very early heading of the alfalfa.
4. Baling and storage
Hay is at its highest quality when it’s cut, so it is best to bale it as soon as possible. Wait for any dew to dry before cutting. Avoid driving over your hay fields or handling the hay too much after baling.
Ideally, to preserve nutrients, hay should cure in dry, sunny weather as quickly as possible.
The type of baler is the farmer’s own choice, but the traditional small square baler is still popular because its bales are so easy to handle or stack, according to the KwaZulu-Natal department of agriculture.
Round balers are becoming increasingly popular as they too have advantages. They are quicker to bale more material per day. Some of these balers can be adjusted to compact the hay differently (loose or compacted), thus slightly wet material can be baled loosely and more aerated, to prevent damage.
Wet hay is bad news for two reasons: it is a fire hazard, and it loses its quality faster.
Moisture in hay causes microbes to break down plant matter and mould growth can occur. This breaking down of the hay produces heat and leads to the danger of combustion.
Even in bales that are not at risk for fire, wet bales will continue to decrease in quality. Mould will often occur, which uses plant tissues as an energy and protein source for growth, resulting in decreased quality. Lowered feed quality of hay due to increased rain and decomposition of nutrients amplifies the potential for poor breed-up and decreased calf weights, according to Dairy Herd Management.
5. Characteristics of good quality hay
Although making good quality hay is an old process in agriculture, it sometimes seems that not everybody knows the characteristics of good hay. Pro-Agri lists the following external characteristics of good hay:
- The colour of conserved hay should be green and not a “straw colour”.
- Hay should be leafy with minimum stems.
- It should have a pleasant aroma, not a sour, damp or pungent smell.
- No stones, wires, plastic ropes, soil or foreign plant material should be present in hay.