Dry hay is the core of many livestock feeding regimens, which makes controlling the quality of hay critical to animal health. Many farmers make hay themselves to ensure it is high in nutritive value and of good quality. Interested in growing and baling your own hay? It takes much more than simply mowing a field and baling the cut grass. Follow these nine steps for high-quality hay:

1. Evaluate whether or not a field of grass is worth haying.

This depends first upon size, terrain and shape of the field. Depending upon the size of the equipment being used, some fields may be too small to make it worth the amount of effort that would go into making a relatively small amount of hay.

“Equipment doesn’t run for free and it wears out,” said Tom Kilcer, a certified crop advisor from New York, “It’s often not worth it to hay a small field.”

Similarly, fields that are oddly-shaped have obstructions like rocks or trees that have to be worked around and those that are very steep pose challenges that make haying them less than ideal.

Lower-growing grasses, like bluegrass or fine fescues, are less desirable. They can still make hay but with a much lower yield.

2. Look at what’s growing.

The best grasses for hay production in the Northeast are taller, cool-season grasses, like Timothy-grass, orchardgrass and smooth bromegrass. Mixing in legumes like clover helps improve the quality of hay and helps fix nitrogen, which improves the soil’s health. Lower-growing grasses, like bluegrass or fine fescues, are less desirable. They can still make hay but with a much lower yield. The taller grasses should be able to out-compete weeds, so noticeable concentrations of weeds are likely a sign of poor fertility or improper pH stunting the grasses’ growth. A field with good soil, proper fertility and cut two or three times per year should be able to yield three or more tons of hay per acre each year.

3. Once it has been determined that a field is worth haying, determine when to cut.

Sid Bosworth, an extension agronomist at the University of Vermont said this requires weighing when the grass is at the proper nutritional level for the animals it’s intended for and keeping a close eye on the weather.

For dairy cows, he said, it’s best to make the first cut early, before the grasses show any kind of seed head, as that’s when the grass contains the most energy.

“A good time to make the first cut is when the grass is in the boot stage, which is when the top is swollen and the seedhead is still inside the leaf sheath,” Bosworth said.

This could be as early as the third week of May in the Northeast, depending upon weather conditions and on species. For example, Orchardgrass heads out earlier than Timothy-grass, so if the field contains a mix of species, knowing when to cut requires more delicate timing to maximize nutritive value.

Kilcer recommends the tools available at http://www.forages.org to help calculate timing for haying. Having equipment ready early in the season is key.

“For high quality forage, grasses need to be cut a whole lot earlier than most people are ready to mow,” he said.

For brood or dry cows, allowing the plants to mature a little longer until early head emergence is acceptable, Bosworth said. The gain in yield will be noticeable, and these animals don’t need as much nutritive value from their hay. Usually grasses in the second and later cuts only have vegetative growth with no or few seedheads; therefore, quality is often higher for these cuttings. It is still important to take these cuttings in a timely manner – usually between 30 and 40 days after the previous cut depending on the particular grass. The timing can rely more on the weather. The taller grass gets, the more their lignin content increases, decreasing digestibility and nutrient content.

The weather, of course, plays an important role in knowing when to hay. The ideal situation is to have three dry days in a row right when the grass is at its peak stage, so that the cut hay can dry properly before baling. Wet ground can result in ruts and compaction of soil from moving equipment, so even if a dry spell is beginning, note how soft the ground is before cutting.

4. Avoid the temptation to maximize yield by cutting grasses too low, Bosworth said.

Keep the mower height at about four inches, because regrowth for grasses comes from energy reserves stored in the leaves. Leaving it at that height also helps to keep the cut hay off the ground and allows air to circulate, which promotes drying, and helps the grass outcompete weeds as it regrows.

5. Once cut, the key to good hay is drying it fast.

Cutting early in the morning takes advantage of the day’s sun, and if the cut hay is spread as widely as possible, it utilizes the sun and speeds up drying. There is a counter-argument to morning cutting, which suggests that cutting later in the day could retain more energy in the hay because the sugar content of the grass is higher and has been converted to complex carbohydrates and starches. But in the Northeast, plants will continue to respire even after being cut, using up available sugars and losing some nutritive value.

Either way, the key to drying hay quickly lies in spreading it broadly so that it has the greatest possible exposure to the sun and air. This can be done using a mower-conditioner, or haybine, or by tedding soon after cutting. Once the surface is dry, it can be turned so the underside has an opportunity to dry as well. It’s possible to overwork cut hay, so only ted and rake as necessary to avoid breaking leaves and losing value, particularly once it is below 50 percent moisture.

Cut grass is still photosynthesizing during the first phase of drying, expelling water and converting energy to carbohydrates, said Kilcer. During this phase some dew or a little rain won’t ruin a crop, but will after it dries to below 50 percent moisture. Of course, surprise rainstorms happen and can ruin cut hay by causing it to leach out nutrients. That cutting should still be dried and removed from the field and can be baled for mulch or bedding.

6. Once a moisture tester determines that the cut hay is at less than 20 percent moisture – closer to 17 percent, ideally – it is ready for baling.

Hay will still cure and continue to dry after being baled as long as it is at this level or lower. Baling hay that is too wet can cause mold and even barn fires as it decomposes. Hay that is too dry is very brittle and the raking and baling process can damage the leaves.

Rake the hay into a windrow to prepare for baling, but wait for the day’s dew to thoroughly dry before doing so. An acre of cut hay raked into windrows can hold two tons of water, which will quickly undo all of the careful drying process, ruin the crop and pose a fire hazard.

Deciding on the size of bales to be made, or between round and square bales, is largely a matter of choice for the farmer and their market; the decision won’t affect nutritional value or management. Smaller bales require more labor, since there are more of them to make and move, but larger bales require more expensive and specialized equipment and can be more challenging to store.

7. Get the baled hay out of the field and under cover as quickly as possible so it doesn’t absorb moisture from the ground or get rained on.

It’s still drying, so airflow remains important during storage. Stacking the bales off of soil is critical, like on crushed stone or pallets, and the cost of building a simple pole barn can be recouped in just a few years by the reduction in losses that occur from potential weather damage to stored hay. While round bales of dry hay can be wrapped with plastic or netting, a good quality hay tarp is a better investment, Kilcer said.

“For high quality forage, grasses need to be cut a whole lot earlier than most people are ready to mow.”

8. Once a crop of hay is in the barn, ensure that the next cutting will be of top quality.

“Hay crops can remove a lot of nutrients from the soil since you’re removing the total biomass of the crop,” Bosworth said.

On average, that means as much as 15-20 pounds of phosphate, 50-60 pounds of potash and 45 pounds of nitrogen come out of the soil for every ton of hay removed.

“If you don’t put nutrients back into the field, you’ll see a decline in forage yield and stand density,” Kilcer said. “We can’t control the weather, but we do have control over fertility, and focusing on that will give a farmer the biggest bang for their buck.”

Add nitrogen in small amount between cuts rather than larger applications once a year to help avoid runoff into water tables.

Boost fertility by allowing animals to graze on the fields at the end of the season. Make sure they are back-fenced and moved through the field so they eat all of the growth evenly and then move on, allowing for regrowth.

Leave at least five inches of grass after the final cut or grazing pass at the end of the season, so that the plants have enough energy stored up to begin growing again after the snow melts in the spring.

9. When purchasing hay, ask for a forage test, which should tell protein content and energy value.

Such a test should include samples from at least 10 bales, and obviously requires some assurance that the bales tested were from the same batch under consideration for purchase. Pull a bale apart and look for rain damage or spoilage on the bales. Dark brown pockets are signs of rain damage and even if there isn’t mold or spoilage, it means that some of the protein in the hay is bound up and won’t be available to the animals, according to Bosworth. Smell the hay to make sure there’s a fresh cured smell and no off-odors or other signs of mold or spores. The color of good hay may vary – some bleaching from sun exposure is typical and doesn’t impact quality. Seeing seed heads means it may have been cut late and was over-mature. An excellent guide to evaluating hay is available at http://pss.uvm.edu/vtcrops/articles/Sensory_Evaluation_Hay_UVM.pdf.

Photos by ThinkDeep and straightshooter/istockphoto.com