Farm Progress

Consider the benefits of cutting grass hay to match grass nutrient content with the nutritional needs of livestock.

November 3, 2016

3 Min Read

When did you cut grass hay this year? Did you wait until all row crops were planted? Maybe you typically cut between your first and second irrigation of corn, or cutting of alfalfa. Some growers choose to wait until mid- to late summer to minimize weather risks or cut off late-emerging weeds. Or, like some, maybe you cut grass hay whenever you get around to it.

Next summer, how about cutting your grass hay to match grass nutrient content with nutritional needs of the livestock you're feeding? Now that's a different way to look at it, isn't it? But doesn't it make sense to harvest hay that will meet the needs of your livestock and minimize your supplement costs this winter?


We all know that protein and energy concentration declines in grass hay as plants mature and become stemmy. As this happens, the types of livestock that can be fed that hay with little or no supplements over the winter months become more limited.

For example, cool-season grass hay cut at early heading often can support more than 1 pound of daily gain for pregnant yearling heifers all by itself. But if the same grass gets mature, it won't even maintain weight of a mature cow without some protein supplements.

Match nutrient content with nutritional needs
Here are a few points to consider when matching grass hay with the nutrient needs of livestock:

• The type of grass you're cutting for hay makes a difference. Cool-season grasses like fescues, orchardgrass, wheatgrasses and bromes tend to have more protein than native warm-season grasses or semi-tropical grasses, at least during first cutting.

• Fertilization also plays a role — in particular, nitrogen affects protein content.


• Plant maturity at harvest influences forage quality more than any other factor.

• It's also a good idea to plan what type of livestock will receive the grass hay from each field. For example, young livestock need high nutrient concentrations so cut that hay before or just when heads begin to emerge. If the hay will go to mature, dry cows instead, let the grass produce a bit more growth and cut it after it is well headed out, but before seeds develop.

• Which animals you feed the hay to can influence the yield-quality balance in grass hay. For example, for animals that need higher-quality hay, like first-calf heifers, you'll probably have to give up some yield, because you're cutting the hay at a younger growth stage to get higher quality. On the other hand, when feeding hay to dry cows and other situations where quality isn't as much of a concern, you can harvest a higher yield by waiting for grass to mature further.

Matching your hay harvest with your plan of use can pay handsome dividends in lower costs and less supplementing.

Anderson is a Nebraska Extension forage specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For more information, contact Anderson at [email protected]. This is a UNL BeefWatch report.

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