By Stephen Janak , County Extension Agent – Ag/Natural Resources
This has been an interesting and sometimes challenging year for forage producers in our county. Spring and early summer rains filled our heads with visions of a barn full of hay. The weather turned against us, however, bringing rain every few days and thwarting any plans we may have had for cutting hay. When the rains finally took a break and gave us some hay-drying weather, forage was very tall and past maturity. I heard many accounts of grass farmers making four, five, or even six round bales per acre.
This is one crop where quantity does not mean quality. Poor quality hay will end up costing a producer more to feed livestock because the forage does not contain enough energy and protein, thus, additional supplementation is required. This is usually supplied in the form of range cubes or molasses tubs. Immature plants are more tender and green, meaning they contain more nitrogen, which is ultimately converted to protein in livestock. Immature plants also contain less crude fiber, which livestock cannot digest and does not contain usable nutrients. As plants mature and set seeds, the cells in leaves and stems develop lignin, which makes plant cells woody and gives trees their rigid form.
In a perfect world, forage bermudagrass should be harvested every three to four weeks. Research has shown that properly-managed Coastal can have crude protein of 18% at three weeks maturity. At seven to eight weeks of plant growth, crude protein has dropped to 6.7%. Even johnsongrass can have 15% crude protein if harvested when the plant first begins to set seed. By the time the seed matures, forage protein has been reduced to 5.6%. For comparison, an actively growing beef animal requires forage with 12% crude protein.
Depending on weather conditions, forage does not always grow at a consistent rate, thereby making it almost impossible to rely solely upon number of weeks when making a decision to cut hay. It is best to pay attention to the average stage of growth of the field. For most grasses, when you see a few immature seed heads forming, crude protein is at its peak. Quality will only decline from there. Bahia grass must be harvested even sooner to maximize crude protein, which can peak at 10-12% if managed correctly.
Research has also shown that livestock prefer forage that was cut in the afternoon over forage cut in the morning. This is because plants make sugars and carbohydrates during the day, but use up some of these nutrients during the night. Afternoon cut hay will have slightly higher amounts of digestible nutrients.
Remember, quantity is not quality when making hay, and feeding high quality hay will save you money and also help your livestock maintain better condition when it is necessary to feed hay. For more information, stop by the office or call 979-732-2082.