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7 Tips for Growing Quality Hay

When it comes to hay production, most of the intense labor happens when it’s time to harvest. With up to four passes through the field required just to cut, rake, bale, and move alfalfa, and four to five harvests during a typical season in the Midwest, producing hay isn’t for the faint of heart.

Hay has the potential to bring good money that makes it competitive with other crops, University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension forage specialist Bruce Anderson says, you just have to take the right management steps and hope for accommodating weather. Here are seven steps to help you produce a quality alfalfa yield:

1. Choose an appropriate field.

Soil pH should be in the 6.5 to 7 range for vigorous alfalfa growth, Anderson says. Ideally, you’d choose a field that you already know hasn’t struggled with weed issues in the past. If you must use a weed-prone site, you’ll need to consider different alfalfa varieties and herbicide options.

2. Plant the right seed variety.

Anderson suggests choosing an alfalfa variety that’s more digestible and low-lignin for a better chance at a healthy, abundant crop.

3. Scout regularly.

Getting out into the fields twice a week should be enough in most alfalfa fields. Be looking closely for signs of disease or pests like the alfalfa weevil and potato leaf hopper.

4. Cut alfalfa at the best time.

Timing mowing to line up ahead of multiple dry days is tricky enough, but there’s also crop maturity to consider. Cut before blooming, at a relatively young maturity level, so the feed value is as high as possible. If the crop goes too long without being cut, the coarse stem will become less digestible for livestock, Anderson says.

5. Set yourself up for drying success.

When mowing the hay, run it through a properly adjusted conditioner and lay the hay out into wide windrows. This will give the hay the most possible exposure to sunlight to help it dry down quickly.

6. Lean on moisture levels.

Leaves are the most valuable part of alfalfa but can be easily lost if the crop is handled at the wrong moisture level. “When raking the hay, do so while the hay is still relatively moist to avoid serious leaf loss,” says Anderson. The window is narrow to rake hay without shaking off leaves. Anderson recommends moisture levels of 14-15% for large square bales, 17-18% for big round bales, and 18-20% for small square bales.

7. Be smart about bale storage.

Bales need protection from the weather to avoid loss. If at all possible, store bales in a shed or under tarps. “If stored exposed to weather conditions, make sure they’re on well-drained sites with bales oriented in north-south type rows to allow sunlight to hit on both sides of (round) bales,” says Anderson.

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