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6 tips to salvage swathed alfalfa after a rain

If your alfalfa crop's ready for its first cut ahead of the normal time this spring, but conditions aren't perfect, there are a few ways to prevent any problems caused by haying during cool, wet conditions, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).

"We often struggle between getting the hay dry enough to bale before the next rain, or baling before the hay is quite dry enough and getting moldy, dusty hay. Conditioning and raking has to be balanced against excessive leaf loss. Successful haymaking is a 'learned art,'" according to an OMAFRA report. "We can't control the weather, but there are a few management practices that can improve your odds against rain damaged hay. While there are certainly no guarantees in haymaking, the maintenance and adjustment of conditioners, windrow management and strategic raking can improve the odds of avoiding hay with rain-damage or mold."

  1. Make sure your mower/conditioner is adjusted correctly. If you're using a roller conditioner, make sure roller clearance and pressure are both where they need to be. On an impeller conditioner, both impeller speed and clearance are important. Check your machine's owner's manual for the right adjustments.

    "Heavier crops, such as first-cut, require more roll pressure (spring tension). Too much pressure can cause excessive leaf loss. Alfalfa stems should be crimped or broken every 3-4 inches to allow moisture to escape," according to OMAFRA. "At least 90% of the stems should be cracked or crimped, with less than 5% of legume leaves bruised or blackened."

  2. Widen your windrow. If you're facing challenging drying conditions, laying your hay in as wide of swaths possible is best. A wider swath will help expose more of the cut hay to sun and wind.

    "University of Wisconsin research indicates that a 12 foot haybine laid into a 9-foot swath will reduce drying time by 35% versus a 6-foot swath," according to OMAFRA. "Wind speed and humidity are the most influential weather factors affecting drying time."

  3. Consider cutting higher. You may lose some yield, but cutting higher helps air move more freely around the windrow, promoting better and quicker drying.

  4. Time your cutting right. The right time of day for cutting depends a lot on your location. If you're in a higher-humidity area, morning (after dew has dried) is better, while in western areas where the air's typically drier, later in the day's better.

    "Cutting hay in the morning, after the dew is off, maximizes daylight hours for drying and minimizes respiration losses," according to OMAFRA. "Research that suggests delaying cutting until late in the day to maximize sugar content, is based on the dry environment of the American west, and does not typically apply to the high humidity conditions of the Great Lakes area."

  5. Rake only when you have to. If your hay gets rained on after you've swathed, raking my be inevitable. But, time it right so you both keep moisture down and limit alfalfa leaf loss.

    "The drier the hay is at raking, the greater the leaf loss. If possible, raking alfalfa at moistures between 30% to 40% is often a good compromise between low leaf loss and good drying," according to OMAFRA. "Leaf loss can be extremely high if raking at 20% moisture. Hay that is almost dry is less likely to shatter when raked in the early morning when the dew is still on."

  6. Consider using propionic acid. If you've raked your hay already and there's rain in the forecast, applying a propionic acid product can help prevent moisture damage. "The use of propionic acid over a wide range of moistures to avoid moldy dry hay is well researched and effective," according to OMAFRA. "This is particularly the case with higher density bales, such as large squares, that need to be drier at baling to avoid mold growth."

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