With May quickly approaching, hay season will soon be officially underway.
In the years since I began working at Ohio State Extension in Noble County, there have been two years when conditions were right for making dry hay in May — 2020 and 2021. The smell of mowed hay drying in the warm sun and the sight of fresh round bales soon to be peppering fields gives me a boost of much-needed optimism. For people concerned with the quality of hay, this is exciting stuff.
Making hay in May is worthy of celebration because the most influential factor on forage quality is plant maturity. As grasses and legumes emerge from the soil in springtime, energy is allocated to leaf production. This is the vegetative stage of growth. The leaves are the most nutritious part of forage crops for livestock to consume, either by grazing or as stored feed.
It is ideal to harvest forages before they bloom. In legumes, the ideal stage for harvest is “early bud,” and for grasses, the ideal stage is “early boot.” Both stages describe the time in which the balance between nutritional value and yield is maximized before the flower fully emerges.
As temperatures heat up and time passes, plants progress from the vegetative phase to the reproductive phase of growth. In this window of time, the plants are allocating energy to the production of a flower.
After flowering, energy is allocated to seed fill. While the focus is shifted to reproduction, leaves and stems become less nutritious and accumulate fiber. The increase of fiber in the stems and leaves helps support the flower and seed head as the plants become heavier.
As fiber increases, the forage becomes more difficult for animals to fully digest. Animals eat less because it takes longer for food to pass through their digestive tract. The greater the amount of fiber in the forage, the lower the nutritional value for livestock, thus the more they must eat to maintain weight. When the rate of consumption cannot adequately supply nutrients to the animal, weight gain stalls and production ability of the animal decreases.
In simple terms, if the weather allows, harvest should be accomplished before grasses and legumes begin producing seed. Having good weather in May gives the haymaker the opportunity to achieve a timely first harvest, and improves the odds of getting good results in subsequent cuttings in the same hay season.
While there are numerous other factors that go into the production of high-quality hay, having good weather on your side is critical for success. Producers must also pay attention to soil fertility, drying time, and hay storage to maximize both quality and quantity.
Making hay in May will mean we are off to a great start of hay season.
Please be safe out in the field, and avoid rushing through tasks. Yes, hay harvest is a task that requires you to time your work for best success, but nothing is more important than worker safety. Take your time to maintain your machinery, your stamina and your focus.
Best wishes to all for a productive and happy summer ahead!
Gelley is the agriculture and natural resources Extension educator for Noble County and a member of the OSU Extension Beef Team. The Beef Team publishes the weekly Ohio BEEF Cattle letter, which can be received via email or found at beef.osu.edu.