Do you ever stop and think what your primary objective is for making hay? Providing winter feed is the most common response. While that’s certainly a high priority, what happens when we let that be our main objective?

That’s the question Jim Gerrish posed in a 1998 "Forage Systems Update" newsletter from the Forage Systems Research Center in Linneus, MO. In his discussion, Gerrish said that generally, we start the season by identifying where we are going to make hay, based on the expectation of harvesting X number of bales so that we can feed hay for X number of days. We tend to delay harvest until we have favorable weather, which results in lower quality hay as cool-season grasses mature.

Frequently, harvest comes so late that the regrowth following hay harvest is poor, offering limited opportunities for fall grazing. The net outcome is that the grazing season is shortened and we are left facing a long hay feeding season with marginal quality hay.

I’d suggest another approach to haymaking, starting from a fundamentally different point of view. Rather than having X number of bales as the basic reason for making hay, consider haymaking as a tool to manage pasture quality and supply.

With this approach, we’ll generally start making hay earlier in the season, accepting greater risk of unfavorable weather but most likely producing higher quality hay, though lower yield. Regrowth is likely to be significantly greater than following later hay harvests due to more favorable soil moisture and temperature levels.

Because of better regrowth on hayed pastures, the main body of pasture will not need to be grazed as severely. This allows for a rest period going into the fall season and more pasture for stockpiling, thus shortening the hay-feeding season.

Plant maturity is generally considered to have the greatest effect on pasture and hay quality. Digestibility typically decreases at a rate of about 0.5%/day following boot state in cool-season grasses. Based on this rate of decline, delaying harvest for three weeks after boot to wait for more favorable weather would result in a digestibility loss of 10%. To put this in context, if digestibility is 60% at boot and declines to 50% three weeks later, the hay has gone from being adequate for a lactating beef cow to being inadequate for even maintenance of a cow.

Several researchers have reported the quality loss due to increased grass maturity to be significantly greater than loss incurred if the hay had been harvested at boot stage and rained on. While this trend is certainly true for grass and grass-dominant hay, alfalfa and other legumes are much more susceptible to serious weather damage. However, if we’re considering hay harvest from pastures, in all likelihood it will be a grass-dominant sward.

If we’re harvesting hay from paddocks in a rotational grazing system, there are again two different approaches to determine where hay is harvested:

  • One approach is to designate certain paddocks at the beginning of the season to be harvested for winter feed. The advantage here is paddocks may be selected on the basis of ease of harvest or managing a particular weed problem.
  • An alternative approach is to graze all pastures initially and then identify the paddocks where grazing management has been least effective and use hay harvest as a tool to clean up grazing-management mistakes.

So before you fire up the equipment this spring or turn the stock out, examine why you make hay and what you would really like to accomplish with haying in the context of your total forage-livestock system. Good pasture management extends the grazing season and reduces the need for hay. Poor hay crop management shortens the grazing season and increases the need for hay.

Editor’s note: For more grazing-management articles by Jim Gerrish, go to: beefmagazine.com/pasture-range/jim-gerrish/.
-- Ohio Beef Cattle Letter