By Cheryl Anderson
DTN Staff Reporter
DAVENPORT, Neb. (DTN) -- Instead of using traditional methods of timing hay cuttings, producers may want to time cuttings to match the nutrient content of the hay with the needs of their livestock.
According to Bruce Anderson, Nebraska Extension forage specialist, timing the harvest of hay to meet the nutrient needs of livestock can minimize the need for protein supplements.
Plant maturity at harvest influences forage quality more than any other factor, Anderson said, as nutrient quality is directly tied to plant maturity. Unfortunately, the maturity of alfalfa plants has a negative relationship to nutrient quality.
"As the plant gets more mature, as it increases in yield, quality factors such as digestibility, total digestible nutrients concentration and protein concentration all decline," he said. "So you have to find that sweet spot that gives us the best balance between yield and quality when cutting hay."
Anderson cited research done at the University of Nebraska examining the yield and crude protein content of warm-season grasses cut on the 1st and 15th of each month in June, July and August, then again at the end of September. The early cuttings produced the smallest yields; however, the crude protein content was extremely high.
"What's interesting is that crude protein levels go down consistently until about July 15th to August 1st, then they level off," he said.
Anderson stressed that the level at which crude protein finishes in warm-season forages is less than that required by a pregnant cow in late gestation. If producers wait too long, they will need to supplement the hay they feed; if they cut it early enough, the hay will meet their needs all by itself, he said.
The loss of protein and energy concentration in mature grass hay limits the types of livestock that can use the hay with no supplements. For instance, cool-season grass hay cut early often has enough protein to support 1 pound of daily gain for pregnant yearlings. But the same grass at a more mature stage is unable to maintain even the weight of a mature cow without protein supplementation.
"We really need to take a look at what we plan to do with our hay before we go out and cut it," he said. "If we have a good target we need to feed animals, a lot of times we can adjust the harvest date or select from different fields the hay that mostly closely matches what the animals need."
By planning harvest, producers can reduce their supplement purchases, reduce labor needed to bring feed to animals and more importantly, satisfy the animals' nutrient needs.
Anderson said producers can plan which livestock will receive which hay cutting. For instance, young livestock require higher nutrient concentrations. So hay for young animals should be cut just when heads begin to emerge.
Likewise, if hay is being cut for more mature cows, grass can be a little more mature and cut after it is well headed out, but before seeds develop.
The type of grass also makes a difference, as cool-season grasses such as fescues, orchard grass, wheat grasses and brome generally have higher protein than native warm-season grasses or semi-tropical grasses during the first cutting.
Anderson also said producers can sometimes allow a little grazing, as long as there is not too much damage due to trampling by the animals and cutting through the sod.
"This will slow down the rate the plants will mature and might stage it for better harvest timing," he said. "That will give us hay at a later date that will still meet the nutrient demands of the various classes of animals we intend to feed the hay to."
Anderson advised producers that midseason may be the time to take inventory of what hay they already have and what they still need, in order to guide some of their management decisions later on in the season.
"That way they can fill in the gaps and meet the needs of livestock later on when hay and forage feeding season ends," he said.
Cheryl Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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