As the calendar turns to May, that means one thing for Mr. Liston, it’s time to cut hay. But for his neighbor Mr. Wendell, the calendar will turn to June before he even considers getting the mower out of the barn. You see for Liston, producing quality hay that will provide optimal nutrition for his animals is his top priority, while Wendell prefers to brag at the local gas station about how many “bales per acre” he has.
So who has it figured out? Is Liston crazy for cutting fescue this early? Should the authorities be called on Wendell for feeding his animals June hay? Would both of them be better off selling their hay equipment and buying their hay from a third neighbor?
The truth is that it has been proven consistently with years and years of on-farm research that cutting hay early, before it goes to a full seed stage, produces higher quality hay. In one study done by UT feeding Holstein heifers, hay cut May 3 had protein of 13.8% and produced an average daily gain of 1.39 lbs. /head/day compared to hay cut on May 25, which was 7.6% protein with an average daily gain of 0.42 lbs. /head/day.
Liston likes those high protein numbers and good gains which is why he tries to get hay up early. Wendell would point to another part of the study though. He would tell you, and correctly so, that the hay cut on May 3 yielded only 1,334 lbs./acre compared to that cut on May 25 which yielded 2,823 lbs./acre.
Wendell is afraid that if he cuts early, he won’t have enough hay to make it through winter. To show why that fear is misguided, let’s go to our Holstein heifer research one final time. The heifers that were fed the high quality May 3 hay had to eat 10.1 lbs. of hay to put on 1 lb. of weight gain. The heifers that were fed the lower quality May 25 hay? They had to eat 22.5 lbs. of hay to gain 1 lb.
In other words it takes a lot more poor hay to put weight on animals than it does feeding good quality hay. You see, the reason the late cut hay has a higher yield is that it has more fiber and stems, which aren’t nearly as digestible as the young leaves of the earlier cut forage.
Wendell and Liston might not ever agree on when the best time to cut hay is, but they can probably agree that it’s a big decision and less than perfect weather forecasting doesn’t make the decision easier.
But, for those like Wendell who have never cut hay in early May, why not find a good rain-free window and give it a shot? Your forage test results, and more importantly the quality of your cattle will likely increase as a result.