April 2018
Feeding Facts

Forage Quality

Producing quality forages takes careful planning, hard work and some luck, and it is an expensive task. It is not too early to spend time deciding how you will approach the job. In some cases, it is time to start storing next winter’s feed.

February brought unseasonably warm temperatures across most of the state. If you caught a break in the abundant rainfall, you may have taken the opportunity to fertilize the cool-season grasses a bit earlier than most years.

Now, we are five or six weeks out … and guess what? It is time to harvest any forages not heavily grazed.

The problem is that, with typical early April temperatures and moisture levels, it is almost impossible to get the forage dry enough to store as hay. So, what do you do?

Option one is to just wait until the weather warms up enough to dry the hay. Option two is to cut the grass and hope you can get enough good drying hours to get it baled. Option three is to cut and wrap the forage as haylage.

Option one has been the most common and is safer in some ways. However, as we look at growth patterns and what happens as a plant matures, there are some issues with this approach. As the plant matures, it loses nutritive value. It becomes older, tougher, less digestible and less palatable.

Figure 1.



Figure 1 shows what a section of grass cells might look like at a good maturity. Figure 2 shows what they will look like a month from now when many of us try to cut our ryegrass or fescue for hay.

The dark green lines represent the cell walls, made up of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. It is somewhat digestible, but relatively low in protein and energy, and too much will severely limit how much an animal can eat and digest.

The lighter green centers are the cells’ content that breaks down to the protein, sugar, starch, vitamins and minerals. In other words, the center portion is what we are primarily looking for in high-quality hay. Once the plant gets really mature (Figure 2), the percentage of fiber goes way up and the percentage of the more valuable protein and energy goes way down.


Figure 2.

You may harvest more tons per acre, but not more value. If you wait until the plant is too mature, you will need to make more trips to the local feed store this coming winter.

Option two is a gamble. If you can get the grass cut while it is young and high quality and get it dried in a timely manner without getting it rained on multiple times, you have a good quality hay that both your cattle and checkbook will appreciate come winter.

If you cut it and it lies through a number of rains, you will lose a high percentage of the tonnage and an even higher percentage of the quality.

Each producer must weigh the risk versus the reward of this option.

Option three is to wrap the forage as haylage. For many producers, this is impossible at this time. But, if you or someone you know can bale wet grass and wrap it, you can add tremendous value to the forage by harvesting it at the proper maturity.

Good haylage cut at the appropriate time and stored correctly will be more nutritious than the hay in option one, and far less of a gamble than the hay in option two. Haylage gives you, the producer, a far better chance to get forages harvested with maximum tonnage without sacrificing quality.

You become a little less reliant on the weather forecast and can manage your forage program in a way benefiting your bottom line from all sides. Cutting, baling, hauling hay to the barn and then hauling it back to the cattle next winter is costly, especially if half is indigestible.

At any rate, if you got fertilizer out early, it is time to make a decision on how to handle the harvest and storage of the first cutting. I think most producers realize there is value in storing and feeding a quality product, but many will "kick the can down the road" and chose to let the forage get too mature. Experienced producers also realize that trying to store hay this early in the year is typically a high-risk task. And last, few of us have the equipment to produce haylage.

So, which will you choose?


Jimmy Parker is AFC’s animal nutritionist.