Hay harvest has started with the recent improvement of weather. Small grains such as wheat, rye and barley are being harvested now. Cool-season grasses such as tall fescue, orchardgrass and ryegrass have matured and headed but quantity of blade seems to be shorter this year.
The last few years have been difficult ones for hay producers, regardless if someone is producing hay to feed to their own stock or producing it for sale to the public. The economics of hay production have drastically increased in the last several years. Striving to produce the best quality possible makes sense with high production costs.
It seems to make good “cents” to concentrate on the factors that improve overall quality of hay. The five major factors that affect forage quality – not yield – include maturity, crop species, harvest and storage, environment and soil fertility.
Maturity of the plants or harvest date is the most important factor affecting forage quality. Plants continually change in forage quality as they mature. As plant cell wall content increases, indigestible lignin accumulates. In fact, forage plant maturity changes so rapidly that it is possible to measure significant declines in forage quality every two or three days.
Crop species or differences in forage quality between grasses and legumes can be large. The protein content of legumes is typically much higher than that of grasses, and legume fiber tends to digest faster than grass fiber, allowing livestock to eat more of the legume.
Harvest and storage – loss of leaves means lower quality. Methods of cutting, teddering and baling can impact quality. Improper harvest techniques can seriously reduce forage quality, primarily through the loss of leaves. Storing a hay crop at an incorrect moisture content or improper ensiling of a forage crop can dramatically lower its quality.
Environment or moisture, temperature and the amount of sunlight influence forage quality. Rain damage is very destructive to forage quality. When bad weather delays harvesting, the forage crop becomes more mature and hence lower in quality. High temperatures may increase lignin accumulation and decrease quality, but drought stress may actually benefit quality by delaying maturity.
Soil fertility affects forage yield much more than it does quality. While it is possible to produce high-quality forage on poor, unproductive soils, it is generally difficult to produce high yields of high quality forage with an unproductive soil resource. It is necessary to balance soil fertility to avoid mineral imbalances
After decades of breeding forages for yield and persistence, attention is being giving to developing or identifying varieties with improved quality. Variety or cultivar can affect forage quality, but not as greatly as the other five factors.
It is difficult to judge hay quality without having a chemical analysis to determine protein, carbohydrates, digestibility and relative nutritional value. A hay analysis can provide valuable information when making feed choices throughout the year. The best time to have the hay sampled is just after baling, while hay is scattered throughout the field. This allows for sampling of bales, which will give a good representative analysis of the overall hay quality. Forage analysis is inexpensive at $17 per sample. Contact your county agent for additional information and the best methods of collecting a good, representative hay sample.
For more information, contact the UT-TSU Extension Office in Wilson County at 615-444-9584. You can also find us on Facebook or visit extension.tennessee.edu/wilson. Ruth Correll, UT Extension-TSU Cooperative Extension agent in Wilson County, may be reached at 615-444-9584 or [email protected]