You are here

Harvesting first-rate alfalfa

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.”

If cutting is delayed until
full-bloom stage, protein can decrease from 25% to 15%, and relative feed value
can lose 60 to 80 points, dropping from 200 to 120.

To best meet the needs
defined by his market for horse hay, Alexander harvests alfalfa before it
reaches 10% to 20% bloom. He finds that this stage of maturity gives a good
balance between quality and yield. (See sidebar at right.)

2. Stem Thickness

"Because horse people are
concerned about the size of stem, we find that first-cutting alfalfa is too
stemmy,” Alexander says. “Our highest-quality hay comes from fourth- and
fifth-cutting alfalfa. Because hay from these cuttings doesn’t grow as tall as
the first-cutting hay, it’s leafier and has a finer stem.”

The extra leaf material
makes a big difference in nutritive content. “Leaves can contain about 30%
protein, while stems might be 10% protein,” says Anderson. “Energy
concentration in leaves is nearly twice that of stems.”

3. Moisture At Baling

Preserving color and leaf
while preventing mold in the bales is a balancing act. Alexander aims to bale
hay with at least 13% moisture but less than 22%. “We let the hay get bone dry
in the field and then wait for the outside humidity to come up to 50% at night
before we start baling,” he says.

During nighttime baling, he
probes hay periodically to ensure appropriate moisture levels.

“When we let alfalfa get
extremely dry in the field and then wait for humidity in the air, the leaves
pick up enough moisture to cling to the stems during baling,” says Anderson.
“But because the hay has dried completely, it is less likely to pick up enough
moisture to cause mold.”


The Alexanders continue to
look for ways to speed up drying time in the field, thus reducing risk of
exposure to wet weather and bleaching of hay.

“We rake alfalfa the day we
bale, pulling two swaths together,” he says. “But we recently bought a hay
machine, so we’ll double-rake a windrow and then fluff it to speed up drying

They presently cut alfalfa
with a sickle header, which minimizes the amount of soil mixing with the hay.
“Disc headers seem to create a vacuum that sucks up soil along with the hay,”
he says.

Alexander’s near-term plans
include working in India for three years. Afterward, he hopes to return to his
family’s farm. In the meantime, his father and brother, Seth, 16, will continue
the hay business.

“Selling high-quality horse
hay is a good way of adding value to the alfalfa we produce,” Alexander says.  

Learn More

Bruce Anderson

402/472-6237 |

Read more about