Hay quality wasn't a topic that got a lot of attention a year ago. With the severe drought in parts of the state, coupled with an unusually devastating late April freeze that would limit early yields, all the talking wound up being about quantity instead of quality. Some pretty poor quality hay found its way into the marketing channels, and sold for prices that few people ever dreamed they would pay for good quality hay.
Hopefully the '08 story is a different season. The first cutting is already in the bale or barn in many cases. What do experts say about preserving hay nutrient content in this or subsequent cuttings as you make hay in the field?
Purdue University's Forage Field Guide, publication ID-317, prepared by the Purdue Diagnostic Training Center, contains interesting tables relating the amount of leaf loss for various haying operations to the moisture content of the forage while the operation occurs. Many agronomists and farmers equate leaf loss with a reduction in quality, especially in legume hay, and rightfully so.
Based on data collected by agronomists, mowing with a flail mower rather than a disc mower can cost you 1% in leaf loss. Mowing with a disc mower vs. the reciprocating-style with rollers in mower-conditioners loses another 1%. Whether the small amount of leaf loss that accumulates compared to the frustration of using the latter type of machine, especially in own hay, is worth it, is your call.
Differences really mount up in raking and tedding operations. That's when moisture content begins to play a vital role in how much quality is left behind in the field. If you rake at 70% moisture, expect only 2% leaf loss. But if you rake at 20% moisture, it jumps to 21%.
Maybe 70% is wetter than you want to be raking hay. At 50% you only lose 5% on average. And at 33%, you lose 12%. Letting hay dry out and all 'the dew go off' before you rake, letting it go al the way to 20%, a moisture level safe for baling without further drying, really kicks up the leaf losses, and thus increases the chances of leaving more quality and protein content in the field.
The numbers are similar for tedding. If fact, they're identical. Tedding already dry hay can also cost big time in terms of leaf loss.
Keep these numbers in mind when deciding when you want to rake or ted hay.