May 2017
Feeding Facts

Time to Make Hay

We are now well into spring and so far so good. Rains have all but eliminated the drought conditions here in Alabama. If you were able to fertilize timely, your hay fields should be boasting tremendous yields. Cool-season grasses have had terrific weather to maximize production.

One of the newer trends in harvesting hay is to ensile it. The technology to bale and wrap high-moisture forage gets more impressive every year. The ability to wrap and ensile these cool-season forages has allowed producers to harvest them in time to maximize forage quality. If producers are able, for instance, to harvest ryegrass in a preboot stage, they could see protein levels in the mid-20-percent range. If this forage is allowed to mature to the dough stage, protein levels will drop to the midteens. Finally, if harvested at maturity, protein levels will be in the 7-9-percent area.

In addition to protein levels falling as the plant goes through maturity, fiber levels dramatically increase. Both acid detergent fiber, ADF, and neutral detergent fiber, NDF, increase as the plant matures. The increases in fiber decrease the level digestibility of the forage. This decrease in digestibility makes the forage less valuable as a feedstuff. Many believe that just because forage is harvested at higher moisture and ensiled that it is higher in quality. Understand, this isn’t always the case. Maturity at harvest is the deciding factor where quality is concerned. I recently had some high-moisture wheat and ryegrass hay analyzed and the protein was a disappointing 7.9 percent. I asked what date had it been harvested on and was informed it had been baled in early May.

May is also a time when warm-season grasses should be thriving. The fields should have already been fertilized and sprayed for weeds. Generally, the warm-season grasses are of lower quality when compared to cool-season grasses. Because of this inherent difference, special care should be given to the time of harvest of warm-season grasses. Generally, warm-season grasses should be harvested every 28-30 days to maximize quality and yield. After 30 days, protein decreases and indigestible fiber increases at rapid rates. Additionally, these forages tend to need more frequent fertilization to maintain their growth and quality.

Regardless of the plant species, forage quality decreases as the plant matures. Producers should be careful to harvest forage at a time that allows for maximum quantity at an acceptable quality. If forage is harvested too early, production will be sacrificed. Likewise, harvesting forage too late could result in great yields, but at a quality requiring more supplementation for the animals to reach your production goals.

The guidelines I have described are just that, guidelines. The only sure way to know where your forage stands is to analyze it. If you analyze your hay crop for several years under varying growing conditions, over time you can have a general idea of the quality of your hay crop without performing an analysis. The advantage to knowing the nutritional value of your hay crop is that you will know how to supplement the animals for desired production goals.

Without analyzing your hay, there is no sure way to know what you are using for feed. The term "buying a pig in a poke" comes to mind. As costs increase, it is imperative we watch all our costs to help increase profits. By analyzing forage quality, we can more precisely provide our animals with proper nutrition.

With complete information, we can help provide the products you need in your operation. There are complete lines of quality feeds and supplements available to complement your forage program at your local Quality Co-op store. In the words of Tommy Wilcox, "Come getcha some."


Stephen Donaldson is AFC’s animal nutritionist. If I can help any of you, please get in touch with me and let’s succeed together. You can reach me at 256-476-5272 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..