When county fairs begin and 4-H members bring in hay samples, judges can expect to see stemmy hay again this year, at least if the 4-H'er is forced to use a first-cutting sample. If weather cooperates from here on out and there is a better window for making second-cutting hay, that may make for better exhibits.
In the bigger picture, it also means there will be lots of first-cutting hay that will be cut later than desirable. Much of it may be rolled into round bales, as one farmer was doing one day late last week. The trick will be determining which animals to feed that hay to next winter to get maximum use of the hay, and yet good performance form the animals.
Chris Parker, a Morgan County Extension ag educator who makes hay and raises cattle, says the key is forage testing. Parker has a hay testing core tube that he can loan to county residents. It attaches to a drill, and allows you to core into blades, and obtain a decent sample to send to a lab. The lab can determine several factors, including protein content and total digestible nutrients in the hay.
Alfalfa and legume high tends to be higher in protein and lower in fiber. However, early-cut grass hay can still be good enough to have a total digestible nutrients number above 100, Parker says. The 100 point is a reference point. Samples scoring above 100 are expected to be better for animals that are in need of a productive feedstuff. For example, dry cows in early winter or animals that aren't lactating can get by on hay with lower protein and TDN values. Some of the long-stemmed, first cutting forage this year may be diverted for those uses come next fall and winter.
Alfalfa reaches maximum protein content at about one-tenth of bloom. Cutting that early sacrifices some yield, but gains quality. In this situation since the weather has forced people to delay cutting, quantity may be up, but quality may be down. It will be important to try to pick up quality on subsequent cuttings, particularly in alfalfa where you can get four cuttings per year, to have hay that is higher protein to feed to animals in lactating stages next winter. Lab tests are best to confirm contest, Parker says.