Farm Horizons, February 2015

Farmers forage for good hay due to weather last spring

By Tara Mathews

A cold, wet spring last year left many farmers with an excess of meadow or forage hay, according to Myron Boll, a Howard Lake farmer.

Most years, Boll begins harvesting hay in late March, but last year his first harvest was pushed to April 25, he said.

“It rained 1 to 2 inches every three to four days last spring; we farmers couldn’t win,” Boll commented. “There really is a short window to harvest hay.”

The ground last spring was cold and saturated from rain, which caused a delay in growing, harvesting, and storing hay.

“About three to four days are needed to harvest the hay, bale it, and get it put away,” Boll noted.

Cause and effect

A winter that wouldn’t stop and a wet spring caused more damage than just wet fields.

“Cold ground leeches out fertilizer,” Boll commented.

It can take a couple months to repair ground that has been leeched of fertilizer, he added.

Another effect of a wet spring is drowned out fields. If hay stands in water for four days, it drowns, according to Boll.

Excessive rain activates weeds, as well, which can ruin a field for future hay or crops.

“When a field is packed with weeds, it takes the nutrients away from a crop, which will result in lower yield,” Boll said.

Many farmers didn’t want to, or couldn’t wait for the ideal harvesting situation and harvested the hay, because not doing so can result in one less cutting for the year, meaning a farmer would be short of hay in general.

“An excess of poor-quality hay means there is a shortage of good-quality hay,” Boll said.

A shortage of quality hay leaves dairy farmers, such as Tim Mathews of Glencoe, scrambling to keep their cattle fed properly.

“It’s pretty much impossible to find good hay,” Mathews commented. “The hay I just bought from auction had a relative feed value of 140, and for dairy cows, ideal relative feed value is 180 to 200.”

Loss of relative feed value

Many farmers weren’t able to harvest hay before it lost some of its relative feed value, meaning they now have to supplement with other forms of feed.

“The ones that harvested too soon wrecked their fields,” Boll said. “And the rest of us waited to harvest, and lost a lot of feed value.”

Relative feed value is an index used by farmers to rank alfalfa and grasses by potential digestible dry matter intake. (Dry matter intake is an estimate of the amount of feed an animal will consume in percent of body weight.)

“Relative feed value is what most buyers use to indicate the quality of hay, but the relative forage quality is what the cows actually get out of the hay,” Mathews noted.

Relative forage quality is an index used by farmers to determine the amount of nutrients stock will absorb from feed. It is calculated using the total digestible nutrients and estimated dry matter intake of the hay.

“Relative forage quality is a more true number, and almost always lower than the relative feed value,” Mathews stated.

In spite of the poor growing and harvesting conditions, dairy farmers seemed to feel the most need to harvest the hay before it lost feed value last year, due to the high level of protein needed by dairy cattle, Boll said.

In order for dairy hay to be considered good quality, it should have a relative feed value of 180 or higher.

“It’s a tough choice for most of us farmers,” he stated. “Destroy the field, or lose value.”

Poor-quality hay does have its purpose though. It can be used to feed beef cattle or young stock, for bedding, and can be mixed with silage or corn to increase feed value.

“There is still nothing better than good-quality hay,” Boll commented.

Tips from a pro

Choosing the right type of bale can help in a wet spring, according to Boll.

Storing hay in round bales can help decrease feed value loss, molding, and excessive moisture.

“Round bales don’t soak in as much moisture when it rains because the moisture runs off,” he said. “Square bales absorb rain.”

Big square bales are the most convenient to haul, but also absorb more moisture, and mold more easily than round bales, he added.

“Did you hear they’re outlawing round bales in South Dakota?” Boll joked. “Because the cows can’t get a square meal.”

Price of hay

Meadow or forage hay (which has a low relative feed value) is selling for $1 to $2 per small square bale, and $15 to $20 per large round bale, according to Derek Lundeen of Lundeen Auction and Appraisals in New Germany.

Good-quality hay is selling for $4 to $6 per small square bale and $$35 to $50 per round bale; and a bale of alfalfa is $5 to $6, he said.

“Good-quality grass hay is in demand right now, and it goes for good money,” Lundeen added.

He has seen a lot of meadow hay lately, which is causing the price to go down.

“More hay means a lower price,” Lundeen said.

Mathews attends quality-tested hay auctions, like most dairy cattle farmers, he said.

At quality-tested hay auctions, the hay is tested the morning of the auction and buyers are provided with a sheet that explains the moisture content, relative feed value, and relative forage value for each load.

“The load I bought in Litchfield yesterday was $200 per ton, which is expensive for what we’re getting out of it,” Mathews commented.

Prices were much higher in the fall, and there were fewer loads of hay brought to auction, he added.

The auction Mathews most recently attended had an abundance of hay, about 65 loads, he said.

What will spring bring?

Hay farmers are working on getting as much hay sold as possible before road restrictions begin in spring, according to Mathews.

“I have a feeling there will be a shortage this spring, and the price will go up, because of the amount of hay I saw at the last auction,” he noted.

About 75 percent of the 65 loads of hay at the auction had a relative feed value of about 100, Mathews said.

“I recommend that anyone who needs hay, or will need hay this spring, buy it now,” he stated.

Mathews, who normally buys one load of hay per year, has bought six since May.

“The little bit of hay I got from last spring and summer will be gone in a week,” he said. “With milk prices down, some of us dairy guys will be barely breaking even, or losing money.”

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