I’ve always made dry hay for my cattle and swine for winter feed. I make big, round bales when it seems the weather will cooperate. In this part of the country though, when it’s “hay-makin’ weather,” as the old-timers would say, it’s past the best quality point of the hay.
Based on the maturity of the grass, late May to early June would be the best time to make hay. But we seem to get rains every few days until late June or July when the hay would be way over mature. One solution many farmers in this area use is to make haylage or balage, the former is silage made from hay, and the latter is hay baled wet and wrapped in plastic. I’ve never wanted to deal with all the plastic and also prefer to not transport and move and feed all that extra water. But, I’ve struggled in the past, getting hay rained on, making hay that is too wet and having it ruined, making hay when it’s too mature, etc.
Last year I made a lot of hay that was too mature. My cattle are used to eating very high quality forage in the grazing months and they don’t want to eat this hay very well. You can see on the right of the photo below all the hay I have left over which I will largely use for hog and cattle bedding in the winter months.
Not wanting to repeat this mistake, I started brainstorming solutions. One possible solution that Joel Salatin uses is to graze his hay fields until he’s ready to make hay, thereby keeping the quality high. Since all my fields have a good perimeter fence, and it would just take some electric fencing to subdivide the fields so I could rotationally graze, I thought this would be a good idea to try.
My cattle were tired of eating hay and they were eating the permanent pasture and woods down to nothing, so I decided to turn them into the first hay field April 14th. It seemed too early and I feared I would damage the forages in the field. But one strategy I planned to use was to only leave them on the forage for a week or less. Keeping animals on a forage for a week or less should prevent overgrazing.
Overgrazing occurs when a plant’s regrowth is bitten off, because a plant is the weakest when it has used its root reserves. A plant is using its root reserves to regrow when there is no green or very little showing, because when it can, a plant will use photosynthesis to meet its energy requirements to grow.
Well the experiment worked very well as far as the cattle were concerned. They had plenty to eat. And the forage wasn’t damaged at all as far as I could tell. But it regrew so well, and the grass is so intent to go to seed, that it was tall and mature by the time I came back with the cattle to graze a second time on June 7th. It had been rested since April 21st, so that is nearly a 7 week rest.
Maybe too long, as the top and bottom photo show the cattle back in that hay field. In the bottom photo you can see the neighbor’s alfalfa field in the background which he harvested for haylage twice as I grazed twice. The calf in the bottom photo is a fall calf which probably weighs around 500 lbs to give you a reference. The heifer in the foreground of the top photo is 20 months old weighing over 1000 lbs.
The good news is even though you can see all that tall orchard grass headed out and mature, the grass and alfalfa and clover down lower was mostly new regrowth and higher quality which the cattle enjoyed grazing. The other concern for me would be potential eye problems with the cattle reaching through that tall grass to graze. But there have been no problems.
The second and third photos in this post show another hay field from the same vantage point. The second photo is May 16th with the cattle grazing. The third photo is after I cut the field for hay on June 27th. It was rested from May 20th to June 27th, a little over five week rest.
Even though there was quite a bit of tall orchard grass which is what makes the hay look so light in color, there was fresher regrowth down low. I baled it up and have fed one bale to the cattle. They are munching on it, so I’m thinking I may have made better quality hay than last year, even though I made it later by the calendar.
One benefit is it was very easy to make dry hay as the weather and ground had dried out quite a bit compared to a month earlier. I plan to give it another five week rest and then take a second cutting which should be very high quality.