Rain-delayed hay baling makes low-grade winter feed for cows

By: 
Duane Dailey

Making hay goes against nature. No one baled hay for the herds of buffalo that roamed the ranges, grazing. They got along fine while never eating a bale of hay. Can we learn from the buffalo?

Farmers trying to bale hay this year confronted a contrary nature. Hay making wasn’t easy, almost impossible, with constant rains. Hay quality suffered. This makes almost four years of short hay crops harvested.

Grass growing in pastures has one aim. It puts up a seed stem with enough seed to keep the species alive for one more year.

Grazing cattle have another idea. They have rumens in their digestive tract to process nutrients in forages to make more beef. They seek nutrient rich leaves. They don’t need seed stems.

If grazing goes right, cattle nip off seed stems before they mature to make seed. Before seed set is when grass contains most nutrients.

Grass plants accumulate elements from roots deep in the soil. Through photosynthesis, an almost magic process helps keep our planet viable.

In spring, after Greenup, the growing grass accumulates nutrients to store in growing leaves. That’s the part ruminants need.

If not grazed, nutrients are transferred from leaves to emerging seed stems. Energy and protein stored in leaves move up stems to make those seeds that can make new plants. That’s the aim of grass. It’s not to feed cows.

Farmers make their best hay if they mow dry, windrow and bale grass before nutrients convert to seed.

This year, an almost constant string of rains did not allow those needed three days of dry weather to make hay. Mowing grass was delayed. Seed stems shot up. Poor hay resulted, that won’t be supportive of cattle fed next winter.

The nutrient conversion process happens in all grass, whether fescue or wheat. In cereal grains, the process is most visible. Energy moves from wheat leaves to wheat heads. Once the seeds are harvested the remaining leaves are called straw.

Farmers use straw for bedding, not for feeding.

The same process goes on in all grasses, whether fescue, millet, rye or whatever.

If fescue is baled late in season, we still call it hay. It ain’t. It’s straw with seed heads attached. That’s why hay testing is needed now. Test will tell how much supplement will be needed to replace missing protein and TDN (Total Digestible Nutrients).

With that frame of mind, we have a better understanding of hay quality being put up after passage of spring. This year, most first-cutting hay missed the cut off time for seed heads.

If seed heads are trimmed in the pre-boot time, the second growth grass will be all leaves. Grass doesn’t put up a replacement seed head. It’s done for the year in reproduction, but it keeps growing leaves.

Second-cutting hay with no seed stems can be prime feed of the year.

There’s possibility of a third cutting. Coolseason grasses have a late growth spurt. Fall pastures can be fertilized to boost that production.

MU Extension specialists have taught for years the idea of fall stockpile. That grass need not be cut and baled. Stockpiled fescue stands right on through freezing of fall and winter.

Fall grazing eliminates baling hay. It’s from a system called Management-intensive Grazing (MiG). That’s taught in MU Grazing Schools started way back when Jim Gerrish was an MU forage agronomist. He worked at Forage Research Center at Linneus. Thousands have gone through those schools to learn methods of rotational grazing.

Managed grazing eliminates work needed for baling hay.

Moving bales into the hay barn was one big reason I decided not to be a farmer. It seemed college offered non-bale careers. I learned to write about hay.

Local MU Extension Centers know of grazing schools still to be held.

And, they may have an auger needed to sample hay bales. They can send off the test also.

Send your hay reports to duanedailey7@gmail.com.

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