“Making hay while the sun shines: Quality, stage of maturity”

Can you identify this forage? Here are your clues: First, it can be stored for long periods with little nutrient loss if protected from weather. Second, it can provide the majority of required nutrients for livestock. Third, it can be produced and fed in small to large amounts.

If you answered hay, you are correct! Due to its great versatility, it is the most common feed stored on most farms. In its April 1, 2011 issue, Progressive Forage Grower featured an article discussing the multitude of factors that influence forage quality. Written by Garry Lacefield, the article defines forage quality as “the extent to which a forage has the potential to produce a desired animal response.”

Using this definition, Lacefield identified the following as factors that influence forage quality:


  • Palatability. As animals base their forage preference on smell, feel, and taste, there are many elements that influence palatability (i.e. texture, leafiness, moisture, etc.).
  • Intake. With higher palatability and forage quality comes higher intake.
  • Digestibility. Varies greatly. Leafy plant tissues are considerably more digestible than mature, stemmy materials (80-90% vs. less than 50%).
  • Nutrient Content. The forage must maintain an acceptable level of nutrients after digestion.
  • Anti-quality factors. The presence of dangerous compounds can lower performance, cause illness or death.
  • Curing & Handling Conditions – “Save the Leaves!” Both rain and sunlight can reduce hay quality by decreasing nutrient content and causing leaf loss. The key to minimizing leaf loss is raking or tedding while hay is at about 40% moisture and baling before hay is below 15% moisture. Tip: To help decrease drying time while still preserving leaves and nutrient content, crush stems (condition) at the time of mowing.
  • MOST IMPORTANT! Stage of maturity when harvested. The best time to harvest is when the plants are transitioning from the vegetative (leafy) to the reproductive (flower-seed) stage. As this transition progresses, legumes and grasses grow higher in fiber and lignin content while losing protein content, digestibility, and palatability. An early first hay cut means aftermath growth begins when temperature and soil moisture are more conducive to plant growth and, in effect, tends to increase total yield per acre.

Throughout the haymaking process, two important phrases to remember are “save the leaves” and “control the controllable,” according to Lacefield. Following these two principles will help farmers meet the ultimate goal of haymaking season: “to produce for yield, harvest for quality and market for profit.”

Source: “Making hay while the sun shines: Quality, stage of maturity” article by Garry D. Lacefield. Progressive Forage Grower, April 1, 2011 issue. Vol. 12, Issue 4.


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