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Drought could alter hay cutting schedule

Timing is everything when it comes to producing quality hay.

Aaron Saeugling, Extension forage agronomist with Iowa State University, says drought conditions will likely impact when hay is cut in 2024.

“There is some concern over the subsoil moisture levels we have right now,” Saeugling says. “Topsoil isn’t too bad, but the subsoil is about 30 inches behind. We’re entering the growing season without much of a cushion.”

Saeugling also says producers should look out for alfalfa weevils this year, as well as other insects. He says drought conditions and a mild winter likely helped insects survive.

“I would keep an eye out for anything you might see in that hay field,” Saeugling says. “It could be a tough year.”

Timing

Cutting hay at the optimal time may be even trickier than normal this year because of widespread drought in the Midwest, says Tim Schnakenberg, Extension forage agronomist with the University of Missouri.

“You won’t have the quantity you might like, but you will have quality,” he says. “If you have a window of opportunity to get things done, data indicates grasses like tall fescue and orchardgrass have outstanding quality when harvested early.”

Schnakenberg says if hay is harvested early, there should be a great opportunity in another 30 to 45 days for a very good second cutting,

“If the moisture is there, the nutritional value of hay is at its peak and you get that good balance between tonnage and harvesting at the boot stage,” he says.

Weather can often interfere with plans, so it is important be ready to cut hay when Mother Nature allows, he says.

“Most of the tall fescue, brome and orchardgrass should be harvested around the late boot stage of development for maximum quality, which normally occurs in May in Missouri, normally one of the wettest months of the year,” Schnakenberg says.

“In addition, the first cutting of alfalfa occurs about the same time, or before, and it is equally as challenging.”

That makes it even more important to cut hay early.

“Early harvest of hay is critical for maintaining quality, but the dilemma producers face is that it is next to impossible to find several good days of drying weather when the crop is ready to harvest,” Schnakenberg says.

“First cutting of cool-season crops rarely matches up with our environment. As a result of delayed harvest, thickening of cell walls occurs in the plant that comes from maturity of the plant once seed heads are made. The thick, mature cell walls lead to higher fiber content of hay and less energy to maintain dairy cow nutritional requirements.”

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