By Harry Brook
Once again, hay season is turning out to be a very wet time of year. High humidity and frequent showers are making it difficult to bale hay in good condition. There are a number of alternatives to harvesting hay in wet weather.
Last year, a lot of producers waited for a stretch of good weather before they cut their hay. That meant they were baling first cut in late August, early September. The problem with this is that the quality of the hay was not much better than straw. It would have been insufficient, by itself, to feed your cattle or horses over the winter.
People often confuse hay quality with hay condition. Hay cut and baled without any rain has been harvested in good condition. That has little bearing on the quality. Good hay quality is related to the physiological maturity of the hay. As hay matures it replaces high levels of protein and energy with greater amounts of fibre. The ideal time to cut alfalfa hay is when 10% of the plants start to bloom. This maximizes both yield and quality with high protein levels. This also applies to grass hays. As the crop matures beyond this point, protein declines and fibre increases. Energy also declines. As a rule of thumb, cows, at mid-pregnancy, require an average of 7.5% protein in their ration.
Alternatives to dry hay bales are silage, both bales and loose. If you’re making silage in a pit, it requires a crew, usually one to swath ahead of the cutter, the cutter, two truckers (maybe more depending on distance hauled) and one to push up in the pit and pack it. The key to making good silage, regardless whether it is baled or loose, is to remove as much oxygen as possible before sealing it up. Too much oxygen and the energy in the silage is used by bacteria and converted to heat. It is even possible for poorly packed silage to smolder and burn.
Baled silage takes fewer people but requires the bales to be smaller due to the water making them heavy. Ideally, haylage should have a moisture content between 40-50%. Any drier and it will be difficult to exclude oxygen. Too much moisture and the feed may freeze into a solid block in winter. This means the hay needs to be cut and given some time to dry down prior to baling or cutting as silage. Depending on weather conditions this can be a matter of a few hours or half a day.
There are benefits to making haylage. Haylage allows you to harvest the hay with minimal loss of leaf material. It’s the leaves that have the highest feed value. However, consider the cost of harvesting on the basis per ton (or tonne) of dry matter.
If you do harvest your hay as haylage, it limits how far you can ship it. With reduced dry matter, it quickly becomes too expensive shipping to move it very far. However, in a wet year, it can get good quality feed in the yard far quicker than waiting for a dry week. It all depends on the weather.