Getting the Most Out of Hay Fields Takes Many Steps

3/15/2014 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent

BALLSTON SPA, N.Y. — When it comes to raising hay, reseeding can be risky business, so make the most of what you have.

That’s what Kevin Ganoe, a Cooperative Extension field crops specialist, told roughly 70 people gathered for the first of a two-day Hay Balage and Forage Quality School at the Saratoga County Extension office in Ballston Spa.

The first session focused on field management and maintenance, while the second session dealt with hay and silage making, storage, marketing and economics. The class was designed for any hay grower or livestock producer who feels they aren’t getting the most out of their fields.

“Start looking at what you have that’s good,” Ganoe said. “Can you manage it to be productive? Reseed only as needed. Planting new takes resources and involves risks.

“If you aren’t managing fields, chances are in a couple of years you’ll be back to where you are now anyway,” he added.

When trying to improve hay quality, one of the first and most important steps farmers should take is assessing what they have now. That means identifying the types of grass in a field, soil type and soil fertility.

Using a PowerPoint presentation, Ganoe showed listeners several common species such as orchard grass, timothy, tall fescue, ryegrass and reed canary grass, explaining each of their characteristics and attributes. Reed canary grass, for example, is “a pretty good grass” but prefers wet conditions, making it difficult to harvest, he said.

Legumes such as alfalfa and several varieties of clover are good for soil because of their high nitrogen content.

It’s preferable to have a mixture of plants in fields. If one kind gets choked out, another will take over. Also, most fields have multiple soil types, so different sections of field are better suited for different species of grass.

“Matching up your soils to whatever species you’re going to grow is important,” Ganoe said.

Sand and clay are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to soil types. Both have assets that can also be liabilities.

For example, sand provides good drainage and warms up early in the spring. However, it’s bad in dry years when moisture retention is needed. It also has less organic matter and doesn’t hold nutrients.

Clay holds moisture, nutrients and organic matter, but can also produce undesirable wet conditions and is slow to warm up in the spring.

Property owners can get help identifying soil types from their local soil and water conservation district office, Natural Resources Conservation Service or from soil survey books — http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/.

After identifying grass and soil types, the next big question is: What to do with it?

Improving fertility and cutting management is crucial to good, high-quality production. A field that isn’t fertilized will still produce crops, but it’s drawing nutrients from the soil. If this isn’t replenished, quality and yield will eventually decline.

Soils should be tested for nutrient levels to know what types and quantities of fertilizer are needed. Ganoe suggested taking 12 to 15 samples, 5 to 6 inches deep, from throughout a given field.

“You might have varying soil types in a field,” he said. “Nitrogen is the key nutrient here to boost yields. It can be from fertilizer, it can be from manure or a plant mixture. Grasses need nitrogen to grow.”

“You’ve got to vary the nitrogen depending on your situation,” he added.

Applying lime improves the soil’s pH level, but to be effective it has to be done in the right quantities.

When cutting hay, Ganoe explained the importance of timing to achieving maximum quality and yield. A farmer’s goals and objectives are also a factor.

“What animals are you feeding? What animal performance do you need?” he said.

Dairy cows, for example, require hay with much higher nutrient and energy content than a retired racehorse.

Cutting fields and meadows regularly helps control weeds. Early cutting produces higher-quality hay, but may result in lower yield.

There’s a “sweet spot” that every farmer should aim for when hay reaches the peak balance between quality and quantity. Knowing when to cut comes with experience and is quite often weather dependent.

Participants asked a number of field-related questions. One person said they had a field that’s been let go for some time and wanted advice on how to bring it back. Another asked if they should till or no-till when seeding. Another farmer talked about problems he’s encountered with an invasive-type plant in his fields.

Robin Borchers of Rensselaer County, along with her husband, recently moved to upstate New York from Texas where they used to raise hay. Conditions in the North are much different, so they found the class valuable for adjusting to this part of the country.

Part two of the course was held March 11-13 in Saratoga, Otsego and Columbia counties.

For information, Ganoe may be contacted by calling 315-219-7786 or email khg2@cornell.edu.


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