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Harvesting first-rate alfalfa

01/11/2011 @ 2:05pm

Caleb Alexander knows firsthand that harvesting practices make or break the quality of alfalfa hay. “We harvest straight alfalfa in small square bales for horse owners,” he says. “The hay has to be leafy and as green as possible, with absolutely no mold.”

Alexander, 24, works with his father, Eldon, on the family’s farm near Garden City, Kansas. The younger Alexander started his hay business at age 16 as part of an FFA project.

The enterprise mushroomed, and today he puts up 25,000 to 40,000 small square bales of alfalfa each year for customers in several states including individual horse owners, feed stores, and feedlots needing hay for pen riders’ horses.

“Most of my clients are repeat customers,” he says. “Many of them I’ve had for the duration of the eight years I’ve been in business.”

The hay business is a perfect fit for the farm’s major enterprises of growing corn, soybeans and alfalfa, raising beef cattle, and the custom-feeding of yearlings.

“My father has 350 acres of irrigated alfalfa, and I buy the hay lying in the field for grinding price. I can buy whatever I want, so if the hay is stemmy or if the swaths get rained on so we can’t put it up as horse-quality hay, we’ll round-bale it and feed it to the beef cattle.”

Baling the alfalfa in first-rate condition and selling it as horse hay adds a premium of $50 to $100 per ton over what the alfalfa might earn if sold to local feedlots to be ground and added to finishing rations.

While Alexander harvests hay to fit the dietary needs of horses, classes of livestock differ in the quality of hay required.

“The nutritional quality of the hay harvested should be determined by the kind of animal that’s going to eat the hay,” says Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska forage specialist. “Lactating dairy cows, for instance, need hay that is extremely high in quality. Dry beef cows, on the other hand, only need a quality of hay that will provide a maintenance diet. Horses typically don’t need supreme quality, but they tend to be more selective in what they will eat.”

Manage three harvesting criteria to match your hay quality to livestock class.

1. Plant Maturity

“The factor most influencing hay quality is the maturity of the plant at harvest,” says Anderson. “If you want the highest quality, you want relatively young plants at cutting. Protein and digestible energy decrease with plant maturity. Cut alfalfa at prebloom to get the highest quality hay.”

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