COLUMBIA, Mo. – April showers that drive corn farmers crazy make better grass, and hay, for livestock farmers.

Early grass growth made 200 pounds of dry matter per acre per day in early April. “That’s amazing,” says Rob Kallenbach, University of Missouri Extension forage specialist.

“As expected, growth slowed to 100 pounds per day in late April,” he adds. “Three inches of growth a week takes intense management. But it allows making more nutritious hay early in May, the best haymaking month of the year.”

Photosynthesis and stored carbohydrates fuel early growth. Cool weather, sunshine and frequent rains help.

Cool-season grasses, fescue and orchardgrass, will soon shift from growing leaves to making seeds.

“Producers must harvest grass, by grazing or haying, before seed heads emerge,” Kallenbach says.

Haying early makes fewer bales. But that makes fewer nutrition-empty bales to store and move for winter feeding.

“I’d rather have 500 bales of hay without seed heads than 1,100 bales of mature grass with seeds,” Kallenbach says. Seed set extracts energy from the leaves.

Late-baled hay contains stems, seed and empty leaves. To cows, hay made in June or July tastes like straw, not grass.

“For winter feeding, I’d rather have nutritious grass that doesn’t need a supplement,” he says. “With that 1,100 bales, it will take a lot of corn gluten or other supplement to keep cows from starving.”

Making hay in May means beating the rain. “It can be done,” Kallenbach says. “There will be a few days of sun. But you must be ready, like a mousetrap. Snap them up.”

If you wait until the first day of sun to see if the equipment works, you’ll miss haying days.

Increasingly, early-season hay makers switch to baleage. They bale partly dried hay and wrap it in plastic. That wrapped hay takes on the feeding quality of silage.

More custom operators are offering baleage services, Kallenbach says. “That’s a business opportunity for entrepreneurs.”

Graziers face a challenge with harvesting fast-growing grass.

“Driving across the state, I see lots of ungrazed pastures. And lots of overgrazed pastures,” Kallenbach says. “The cure is to move the cows from the overgrazed pasture onto the growing grass. Then shut the gate behind them.”

The hard-grazed grass needs a rest.

Growing grass develops deep roots that gather water and fuel growth. Turn the cows in when grass is 8 to 10 inches tall. Then move them out when grass is grazed down to 2.5 inches.

“If pastures are grazed too short, there isn’t enough leaf left to support photosynthesis for regrowth,” he says.

Grass grubbed into the ground takes a long time to recover.

For best-quality forage, use management-intensive grazing of pastures divided into smaller paddocks.

Overgrown paddocks cut for hay just at boot stage, before seed heads emerge, make for better grazing later, he says. The grass cut for hay early will continue in the vegetative state through June into July. That delays the start of the cool-season grass summer slump.

“Make hay in May,” Kallenbach says. “That’s kind of poetic.”

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