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Ready, Set, Mow….

April 7, 2010

This article was written by one of my colleagues, Paul Craig. Paul is a forage guru. He works for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Dauphin County, as their Agronomy Educator. If you have a forage question, Paul is the one to ask. If you would like to contact Paul, his email address is: 

Ready, Set, Mow!!!

Forage producers know that first cutting of all cool season forages including alfalfa clovers and grasses is the largest yielding cutting each year. Some estimates show first cutting can be 40 to 50% of total yields depending on mid to late season growth. Because of this, first cutting has the potential to provide forage feeders with either some outstanding forage quality or unfortunately, large amounts of poor quality forage for the entire feeding season. Are you ready for forage harvest?

First cutting sets the stage for all preceding forage harvests. A delay in first cutting will significantly reduce forage quality and may prevent maximum forage yields for the season. Avoid any delay in harvesting first cutting! It’s been said before but always worth repeating. When it is time to make forage – Stop planting corn and make hay!!

 Don’t get caught behind on first cutting. Many forage producers across south central PA have moved up their first cutting schedule compared to 8 to 10 years ago. If weather conditions in early to mid-May are suitable for cutting forage grasses and alfalfa don’t delay. Pre-bud or pre-boot harvest of many stands may make the difference between excellent forage and disaster. Weather in the following week may turn wet and keep you out of the fields for 10 days or more. Then first cutting becomes too mature and quality suffers.

Forages that are grown today are high yielding with vigorous spring growth. However, if you decide to take an early harvest be sure to let a later cutting, usually 3rd or 4th cutting reach early bloom, plus maintain soil fertility levels (especially K2O) and stay ahead of potato leafhoppers this summer to ensure a healthy stand entering fall dormancy.

Because of the importance of getting forage harvested on time and quickly and the fact that a heavy first cutting will slow harvest speed, haylage or baleage should be the harvest method of choice. Attempting to get forages to reach low moisture levels to permit dry hay harvesting in May can significantly slow up harvest rates.

Here are a few production pointers for making quality haylage and baleage. Optimum moisture levels for grass crops are 40 to 60%. Because alfalfa is high in calcium, which buffers haylage fermentation, moisture levels for alfalfa haylage should be slightly less, 40 to 55% moisture. If making baleage, be sure to wrap bales with at least 6, preferably 8 mils of plastic to ensure an airtight seal. Wrapping should take place within 24 hours, preferably sooner.

Limit bale diameter to 4 feet to minimize handling extremely heavy bales and ensure safety. Store bales on the ends, which have significantly more layers of plastic wrap, for protection. Mark and store by cuttings. Baleage made with optimum moisture conditions, at earlier stages of maturity and wrapped properly has the potential for 12 months or longer storage. Bales made under less optimum conditions will not have the storability and may need to be fed out in 3 to 6 months.

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