Home Farmer's Inside Track Farmer's guide: How to make good quality hay

Farmer’s guide: How to make good quality hay

Many farmers are starting to realise the benefits of feeding or selling higher quality hay in recent years because they have learnt that higher quality means more meat or milk production

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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.

good quality hay
Lowered feed quality of hay due to increased rain and decomposition of nutrients amplifies the potential for poor breed-up and decreased calf weights. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

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.

round hay bales
Round hay bales are becoming more popular if you can afford a baling machine. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

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.

square hay bales
The traditional small square baler is still popular because its bales are so easy to handle and to stack. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

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.

ALSO READ: How to keep your cattle healthy (and happy!) this winter

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Dona Van Eeden
Dona Van Eeden
Dona van Eeden is a budding writer and journalist, starting her career as an intern at Food for Mzansi. Furnished with a deep love and understanding of environmental systems and sustainable development, she aims to make the world a better place however she can. In her free time you can find her with her nose in a book or wandering on a mountain, looking at the world through her camera's viewfinder.
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