Forage offers soil health benefits, and farmers can opt to manage the crop themselves or rent acres
By Jackie Clark
As farmers across Ontario evaluate the grain markets and the performance of their soils this year, they may want to consider incorporating a hay crop into their rotation. After all, forages offer soil benefits and can garner strong prices.
“Because hay is a perennial, we’ve got living roots in the soil for several years, rather than just part of the year for the growing season,” Christine O’Reilly told Farms.com. She’s the forage and grazing specialist at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.
“So that provides more soil organic matter building and more soil carbon cycling. It provides more food to the soil microbes. All those kinds of things contribute to soil health,” she explained.
Lack of access to harvest equipment is one of the biggest barriers to hay production. But a farmer considering the addition of a perennial forage in their cash crop rotation may choose to rent the acres out, or sell standing hay.
“It comes down to experience, equipment and comfort level, and that varies farm to farm,” O’Reilly said.
Once producers have a plan, they can prepare for planting.
“The timing has to be watched very carefully,” O’Reilly said. “if that hay crop doesn’t get planted early, it won’t have enough time to establish in the fall and it won’t have developed a big enough root system to overwinter.”
In northern parts of the province where the season is short, producers may underseed hay to spring cereal taken off for silage or light grain. This seeding method allows the hay a good chance to establish.
The length of time the perennial should stay in the rotation to maximize benefit will depend on the species.
“If the hay that’s being grown is predominantly alfalfa, the target is ten cuts over the life of that stand,” O’Reilly said. “Once you go longer than that, (the crop is) more likely to suffer from insect pressure and to have disease challenges. (The crop is also) less likely to yield as well as it did previously.”
For a grass-based forage, “to get that soil health benefit, you’re probably looking at three or four years of hay,” she added. After that timeframe, yield will start to decline.
“Research shows a rotation benefit following hay that’s separate from any nitrogen credits from clover or alfalfa. That three years gives the rotation the benefit of having the perennial crop,” O’Reilly said.
Selling high-quality hay for premium markets will involve different management strategies depending on the target customer.
Hay management “comes down to the nutritional demands of the animal,” O’Reilly explained.
A dairy farmer looking for a lactating cow ration, for example, will need a forage high in protein.
“Ideally, producers making forage for the dairy market will cut at the bud stage of alfalfa,” she said. “They definitely want to get to that crop before it starts to flower because, at that stage, it has very high protein and very high digestible fibre.”
The horse market, in contrast, “wants a much more mature hay … soft, green, dust-free hay,” O’Reilly said.
“Horses have a very different digestive strategy. They’re not ruminants, they’re hindgut fermenters. So, their nutritional needs are different. They don’t need the same kind of nutrient-dense rocket-fuel-type feed that we give dairy cows,” she explained.
Purchasers of forage for horses want dust-free hay because these animals have less buffer for mould. Horses are also typically kept for athletic purposes and their respiratory health is key for performance, O’Reilly explained.
Click here to read more about marketing options for hay in a cash crop rotation.
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