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It takes more than sunshine to make high-quality and high-yielding hay

Cutting at the right time, giving stands a chance to recover, and investing in 
nutrients can make a big difference to the bottom line

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Producers are becoming increasingly aware of how hay quality and productivity affect their bottom lines — whether they’re selling hay or feeding it to their livestock.

The biggest factor in achieving these goals is the timing of cutting, says Barry Yaremcio, beef and forage specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.

“For every week a mixed alfalfa grass hay stand is let mature past prime, protein content drops one to 1.5 per cent and it loses five per cent energy content,” says Yaremcio.

Evaluating the stage of bloom is key, but knowing the optimum time to cut can also depend on your feed requirements at that time of year, he says. For alfalfa, 10 per cent bloom (that is, 10 of every 100 blossoms in the crop are open) is considered ideal while 10 to 20 per cent is ideal for clovers.

Farmers often take their second cut of hay in August or September, however, it is important to keep in mind that a stand needs 45 days of regrowth to fully recover and replenish food reserves in the plants. Therefore, you should not cut your stand if it’s less than 45 days to when you typically get your first frost. (For example, if the first frost in your area is Sept. 15, then the no-cut period begins Aug. 1.)

It is recommended that you cut alfalfa stands around the last week of September — after two good frosts — as waiting longer results in leaves becoming brittle and falling off. As leaves are high in protein, minimizing leaf loss is important.

When it comes to baling, there are numerous considerations to take into account. Using biological inoculant is highly recommended as it is a cost-effective means of increasing yield, lengthening the window for baling, and preventing mould. Keeping your baler as full as possible by making a thicker windrow will result in less leaf loss. Keep in mind that every time you turn a crop of hay, you lose five per cent of yield — mainly because of leaf loss. A solution can be round bale silage, which will improve yield as the moisture keeps the hay together better and lowers leaf loss, however, costs also increase.


Soil testing is the first step in establishing a productive stand.
photo: Tessa Nybo

Many hay producers say spending money to boost quality and yield is well worth it.

Barr-Ag Ltd. in Olds is one of the country’s top hay exporters, selling compressed, non-GMO timothy hay and forage products to dairy operations and horse owners in Europe, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and the U.S.

The company uses “aggressive means” to improve quality and productivity, says president Barry Schmitt.

“By adopting a similar mentality to grain producers, Barr-Ag Ltd. increased yields on irrigated and dryland timothy and alfalfa stands with heavier rates of seeding and increased fertilizer application,” says Schmitt.

Propionic acid and lactobacillus bacteria have been used by Barr-Ag to preserve and reduce yield loss in timothy and alfalfa crops, although the hay must still be put through a hay dryer for export.

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If you are seeding a new stand of hay, your first step should be to have a soil test done as getting the crop off to a good start is critical. Putting down extra phosphorus and potassium in initial years is ideal as both have a maximum movement of half an inch per year in soil — therefore they remain available to plants for several years. Phosphorus is necessary for growth, while potassium helps stands resist disease and improves winter hardiness.

In established stands, nitrogen is often thought to be the first go-to nutrient when fertility comes into question. However, nitrogen is not always the nutrient lacking most in established hay stands. Pay attention to sulphur levels. A lack of this macronutrient causes yellowing that is often mistaken for nitrogen deficiency.

For more information on improving the quality and productivity of your new or established hay stands, contact Barry Yaremcio or his fellow forage specialist Linda Hunt, who started in mid-April. Both can be reached at 310-FARM.

About the author


Tessa Nybo

Tessa Nybo is a leader and advocate in the agriculture industry, esteemed cattle clinician, and professional speaker. She raises prospect show calves and purebred Limousin as well as growing grain and forage crops north of Edmonton, Alberta. Visit her website at



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