The Right Time and Tools for Cutting Hay

posted on Thursday, April 25, 2019 in How To

Tennessee is one of the country’s top producers of livestock, and small farmers play a big part in that production. When you lack the resources and land of bigger farms, you have to make do with more sustainable methods of feeding your animals. And that means making hay.

Hay and livestock go hand-in-hand. When you don’t have enough pasture for your grazing animals, making hay is a versatile and efficient way of getting your livestock the nutrition they need all year long. Hay can be cut whenever you have excess growth and stored for long stretches with little loss in nutritional value. To get the most value out of your hay, you have to cut it at the right time.

The Best Time to Cut Hay

Hay isn’t a plant. It can come from many different crops. Tall fescue grows in most Tennessee hay fields, but alfalfa, ryegrass, barley, bermudagrass, rye, wheat, oats, clover, orchardgrass, sorghum, pearl millet, timothy, or a mix of grasses and cereals are common.

In the temperate Southeast climate, you can get multiple cuttings every growing season from some of these crops. The ideal time to make hay from each plant is before it blooms. When a flower or seeds develop, the plant has entered its reproductive state. You want to harvest it while it’s still in its vegetative state where it’s higher in fiber, more palatable, and more digestible for your livestock.

It’s tempting to let your fields grow and make more hay, but less is more. While you can get a lot more hay if you let your pasture grow, the end product will be lower quality. Not only will it contain fewer nutrients, but the hay will be less appetizing to your hungry animals.

Recommended Hay Harvesting Schedule

Type of Hay Cuttings Per Year Ideal Cutting Length Timing to Harvest
Alfalfa 3-4 2-4 inches Bud stage for first cutting. 1/10 bloom for later cuttings
Barley 2-3 12-16 inches Boot to early head stage.
Bermudagrass 3-4 8 inches Cut at height for 1st cutting. Every 4 weeks for additional cuttings. 
Oats 1 5-8 inches Boot to early head stage.
Orchardgrass  2-3 3-4 inches Boot to early head stage for 1st cutting. Every 4-6 weeks after for 2nd and 3rd cuttings.
Pearl millet 1 6 inches Early boot stage or 40 inches, whichever happens first.
Red or crimson clover 2-3 2 inches Early to half bloom.
Rye 1 8 inches Boot to early head stage.
Ryegrass 1 2-4 inches Boot to early head stage.
Sorghum 2-3 40 inches Early boot stage or 40 inches, whichever happens first.
Tall fescue 2-3 2-4 inches

Boot to early head stage for 1st cutting. Every 4-6 weeks after for 2nd and 3rd cuttings.

Timothy 2-3 3-4 inches

Boot to early head stage for 1st cutting. Every 4-6 weeks after for 2nd and 3rd cuttings.

Wheat 1 48 inches Boot to early head stage.

Timing Your Hay Harvest

Timing is everything. In addition to the right height and stage of plant growth, your crops must have the right amount of moisture. For quality bales, the stem moisture of your hay should be between 8 and 15 percent. At that level of moisture, hay feels brittle and crisp and breaks easily. Cut a little and test it with a handheld hay moisture meter for accuracy.

You can’t predict the weather, but in this case, you have to try. There’s an old saying, “Make hay while the sun shines.” Follow that advice and cut your pasture when there are a few days of sunshine in the forecast to allow it to dry. Rain can damage the leaves and cause the nutrients to leach out. A good forecast also allows the sun to do the work of drying your hay for you.

Small-Scale Hay Equipment to Make the Job Easier

Fortunately, the days of cutting hay by hand are long gone. Farmers traded in their scythes for tractors, mowers, and balers. Hay and forage equipment takes the time and labor out of creating quality feed for your livestock. When you’re cutting hay three to four times a year, the time and labor savings add up fast.

Utility Tractor

A tractor makes it all possible. Hay and forage implements and attachments connect to the tractor to get every hay-related task you need done. Utility tractors are built for small farms where you need an all-around workhorse to help with the chores and maneuverability to handle tight quarters. The John Deere 5M Series and 6M Series utility tractors have the horsepower and versatility to handle hay and any other chore.

Disc Mower

Pastures aren’t known for their level surfaces. Disc mowers provide a clean, consistent cut on the roughest of hay fields. They simply hook up to the back of your utility tractor to turn it into a mower capable of handling tough, thick crops.

Hay Tedder

Moisture can turn a perfectly-timed cut into low-quality feed. Hay tedders turn the hay over with rotating forks to help your harvest dry out better. Freshly-cut grass and cereal can dry out and be made into hay the same day.

Baler

Once the hay is cut and dried, it’s ready to either dump in a feed bin for your livestock or bale for storage. Balers take the scattered hay from your pasture and turn it into square or round bales that you can stack and store. Square bales are smaller and easier to store on small farms. Left outside, they have less surface area exposed to the elements to reduce hay loss due to spoilage.

Bale Spears

Small or large, square or round, you have to move those bales at some point. Bale spears allow you to pick up your hay bales and transport them to a barn, shed, or another area of your farm for long-term storage.

Assess your needs. There’s a variety of hay and forage equipment to handle farms and tasks of all sizes. You’ll need somewhere to store your hay bales and the equipment used to make them.

Until the sun shines over your pasture, that is. Then it’s time to make hay.

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