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Hay is a significant agricultural crop in Kentucky, with receipts around $150 million in 2009, the most recent year for which data is on file. The Commonwealth typically harvests around 2.5 million acres of hay, the vast majority of which is fescue/grass hay. Because hay is important to livestock producers of all types, learning to effectively manage a hay crop for higher and better yields is a critical skill. New research from the University of Wisconsin Extension summarizes how to shorten the harvest window, enhance forage quality, and reduce the chance for rain damage.
According to University of Wisconsin Extension publication A3927, “Best Practices to Hasten Field Drying of Grasses and Alfalfa,” there are basic steps to enhance field drying.
Mow to a proper height, which is between 2 and 4 inches for alfalfa and between 3 and 4 inches for grasses (except rye grasses and bluegrasses).
Mechanical conditioning can nearly double the drying rate. Research has demonstrated that no matter how wide the crop is laid in the swath, conditioning will increase the drying rate most of the time. Properly conditioned legume stems should be scraped or broken every 2 to 4 inches, with less than 5 percent of the leaves being bruised.
Lay hay in a wide swath. It is important to lay the crop out in a wide swath that covers at least 60 percent of the cut area. Wide swaths reduce density, increase exposure to the sun, and increase crop surface temperature—all important factors in rapid drying.
Commercial hay producers in Kentucky consider tedding an important step to speed drying. Tedding is the process of lifting and throwing the cut crop to improve air flow through the swath. With alfalfa hay, tedding is recommended the morning after cutting just after the dew has dried to reduce leaf loss.
Well timed raking/merging. To minimize leaf loss and soil contamination, merge/rake dry hay when moisture is above 40 percent for alfalfa and 25 percent for grass. To reduce soil contamination, rake with little or no tines touching the ground. This is possible when you have a wide swath and the hay stays on top of the stubble.
Other research-based tips: Match the capacity of your harvester or baler. Harvesting less than your capacity reduces energy efficiency, increases labor costs, and damages the stand because of extra wheel traffic. The recommendation for hay under most climatic conditions is to cut one morning after dew leaves the field, ted the next morning, rake the next, and bale when ready. During excellent drying conditions this sequence of steps can be shorter. Commercial hay makers should note that little bleaching will occur in the first 24 hours because rapid water loss prevents heating and bleaching.