Hay-cutting tips for superior hay quality
Achieving a good, clean cut, with minimum dirt and debris,
is key step toward harvesting top-quality hay
With alfalfa acres uncertain after the 2012 drought and both grass and alfalfa hay inventories low in many areas, brisk demand for high-quality hay is expected again in 2013. Whether producing hay for your own use or to sell, making the most of the available crop begins with cutting. Timing, technique and equipment all play important roles in success. Following are some helpful reminders as producers go into the 2013 production season.
Stage of maturity at harvest influences the palatability, crude protein content and the digestible energy level of the final product. In general, the best time to harvest for a good yield as well as high-energy and crude protein levels is in the early bloom stage for alfalfa and in the boot stage (just before seedhead emergence) in grasses. In many areas, a 25- to 28-day cutting interval for alfalfa results in the best combination of quality and tonnage.
“Cutting hay is often dictated by the environment and the hay-drying conditions, but a general rule is to cut after the dew is gone and when topsoil is dry, to reduce soil compaction and facilitate better drying of the crop,” says Dean Morrell, AGCO product marketing manager for Hesston by Massey Ferguson® hay products and a 35-year-veteran of the quality-hay business. Research has shown that hay quality is higher when hay is cut while the sugar content remains higher in the plant. As daytime air temperatures rise, sugar content in the plant decreases, so cutting later in the morning or early afternoon results in lower hay quality.
The demands of the environment and the individual operation also will influence the choice in equipment used. Modern sickle-type or disc-type mowers, windrowers and swathers are capable of cutting forage crops fast and cleanly, leaving a smooth, even windrow that maximizes crop dry-down. Disc mowers offer the advantage of allowing hay to be cut earlier in the morning or later in the evening, when better leaf moisture means less loss of nutrient-rich leaves.
“No matter what machine is being used, there are several things people should strive for when they cut hay,” explains Morrell. “First, you want a good, clean cut that will leave the plants with as little stem damage as possible, so they’re ready for quick regrowth. Second, you don’t want to leave any crop behind, and it’s also important to minimize dirt in the crop.”
Here are tips from Morrell for maximizing tonnage of high-quality hay with any mower or mower conditioner model:
- Proper blade maintenance is critical to achieving a good cut. Blades must be sharp to cut the forage cleanly and to minimize stem and leaf shattering. Check your owner’s manual for the manufacturer’s recommendations on blade-change intervals, and be sure to stock up on replacement blades before hay season starts.
- Choose the right blade for the job. Shallower 10- or 11-degree blades create less air lift, thus pulling less dirt into the forage. If less suction works for your crop conditions, these blades can be a good choice. Thick, matted forage may require a blade with more lift, such as an 18-degree blade. Bottom-beveled blades have an advantage if they hit a stone or rock because they bend upward, away from the cutter bar.
- Set the cutting height at 1.5 to 3 inches. This reduces contamination from dirt, making the crop easier to rake and to pick up with the baler. To avoid dirt and ash contamination and reduce knife and general mower wear and tear, avoid pitching the cutter bar downward at too steep an angle.
- Set the header flotation height to avoid scalping the soil surface and wavy cutting height from one end of the field to the other. Ideally, the cutter will gently float across the ground without scuffing the surface. If you see scuffs or dirt streaking across the field, you don’t have enough flotation pressure, or the mower is set too heavy. If you see waves in the field, you have too much flotation pressure, or the header is set too light. Where the field surface is rough and uneven, flotation should be increased, making the head lighter to glide over rough terrain. When running the head heavier on the self-propelled unit, optional gauge wheels are recommended.
- With mower conditioners, turbulence (or windage) created by the conditioning rolls can blow the crop from its upright position before it is cut, resulting in an uneven cut. If this is a problem, increase ground speed or slow the conditioning system, or do a combination of the two, to reduce turbulence for a cleaner cut.
- Lay the windrow out as flat and wide as possible by setting the swathboard to its lowest possible setting (all the way down). A wide windrow maximizes dry-down by providing the best exposure to wind and sunlight.
- Be sure to check your owner’s manual for daily and regular service and maintenance needs to ensure peak machine performance. And, stock up on key replacement parts such as cutter blades, sickle sections, guards, drive belts and hoses to reduce costly downtime from minor breakdowns. Dealers often have a list of parts recommended for on-farm stocking and may offer preseason discounts for parts purchases.
Hesston has been providing innovation and solutions to farmers since 1947, and is the industry leader in hay-harvesting products. For more information about Hesston by Massey Ferguson products or to find a dealer near you, visit hesston.com.