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Making Hay Without Sunshine
Thursday, June 25, 2015 11:29AM CDT

By Cheryl Anderson
DTN Staff Reporter

DAVENPORT, Neb. (DTN) -- An old proverb advises "make hay while the sun shines." Most alfalfa growers would love to do just that, but with the seemingly endless spring rains, they haven't had much opportunity.

Excessive rains with little dry weather in between and muddy field conditions have left many growers far behind their normal alfalfa cutting schedule, according to Bruce Anderson, professor of agronomy at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Typically, the first cutting of alfalfa is taken somewhere around Memorial Day, plus or minus a week, and the second cutting usually comes approximately five weeks later. The majority of Nebraska alfalfa growers have gotten their first cutting off, although for many of those growers the first cutting was delayed, Anderson said.

"Right now we are at the point where growers would typically be starting on their second cutting in many areas," he said, "but some have not even gotten their first cutting off in decent shape."

A number of growers are still battling muddy fields and hay too wet to bale and they have not finished their first cutting. Some hay-making delays are also tied to farmers needing to take care of other work associated with excess rains. For example, there are still some growers with fields so wet they are waiting to plant soybeans, Anderson said.


Hay that stands in fields past maturity and hay that is wet loses quality. As plants get more mature, quality factors such as digestibility, protein concentration, etc., all decline. This is especially true of alfalfa hay, Anderson said. Leaving hay wet in windrows too long can also cause damage.

"You can turn some awfully good alfalfa into some pretty poor feed by allowing it to hang out in windrows in the fields," he said.

In a recent podcast (http://ow.ly/…), Anderson offered some ideas for growers faced with hay too wet to be baled.

While growers can't control the rain, they can take steps to dry their hay as fast as possible. One move is to expose as much as possible to direct sunlight, to draw moisture out of the hay.

Anderson said when raking or making windrows, it is important to keep hay spread out as widely as possible, to allow more hay to be hit by direct sunlight. Doing so will make the hay dry faster, he said.

"Sometimes we think we can save labor by making tight windrows and bunching hay up when cutting, but when hay is in tighter bunches, only the top is exposed to sun and the bottom will not dry effectively," he said. "Spreading hay out allows growers to get the hay off the field a day or more quicker than if in tight windrows."

Another option, although it can be expensive and complicated, is to make silage.

"If you're having weather patterns that do not look very conducive to making hay, and if you have the labor and equipment available to chop instead of baling, that can be a good option," Anderson said.

A similar option is to bale hay when still a bit wet, even hay with a moisture content of 40% to 50%, then use a wrapping device and let it ferment like silage in an oxygen-free environment. Anderson said there are both single-bale wrappers and inline wrapper for high-volume forage baling.

Preservatives can enable producers to put up hay that is slightly wet. Such products can help sterilize hay and get rid of mold-causing micro-organisms.

"We do have a few options out there we can go to. Those options may make hay a little more expensive, but it might be more cost effective to spend a little more than to have hay wasted by cutting more mature or rain-damaged hay," he said.

Cheryl Anderson can be reached at cheryl.anderson@dtn.com


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