It’s getting close to that time of year: hay season. Making hay is a staple of many farmers’ and ranchers’ lives. We know when May comes around, it’s time to harvest and prepare for the colder months coming. It may seem like an easy process on the surface, but farmers and ranchers have a lot of decisions to make when it comes to this all important (and incredibly useful) grass.
During the warmer months, the cattle graze on grass. This is where they get some of their necessary nutrients. Once the cooler weather hits, the grass goes dormant, and farmers need to supplement their diets with forage. To help prepare for colder weather, many farmers plant, harvest and store forage earlier in the year.
The farmers then use this hay in a couple different ways: to feed to the cows and to provide ground cover. Providing the cows with hay to eat gives them the nutrients they need, and giving them hay on the ground gives them warmer places to lay.
Types of Hay
There are many decisions that farmers make when it comes to their winter plans. While many people outside of agriculture think of hay as a general description of what farmers feed their cows when it’s cold outside, there is actually more to the forage fed than people realize. This is where those all important decisions come into play.
We feed both dry hay and baleage. Hay is dry cut and baled, whereas baleage is baled wet and wrapped in plastic. Baleage has a higher moisture content than hay which allows for fermentation of the forage. The fermentation allows for a more easily digestible forage for the cows that is high in the nutrients needed. Baleage also has a couple advantages over dry hay. It has more nutrients and is less likely to be ruined by weather, all because the process for making and storing it is faster. Because it is higher in protein and other nutrients, it helps the cows to produce more milk.
Beyond choosing whether to feed hay or a more moisture rich type of forage, farmers also need to decide which type of grass to plant in order to make the forage. While ryegrass, tall fescue, and prairie grass are popular choices, we use triticale. Triticale is a hybrid of wheat and rye and is becoming more popular among dairy farmers.
The process for creating hay and baleage or silage are slightly different, but still share some of the same steps. We will start with the full process for making hay: planting, cutting, tedding, raking, and baling.
The first step is to plant the grass. This is done in late summer for most people in Oklahoma. The grass is a cool weather grass, so it does not die during the winter, but simply sits idle until the weather starts to warm up. Once the weather hits 70 degrees, the triticale will begin to grow and produce. Just before it produces the kernels of wheat, or the head, is when we like to harvest for the highest feed value.
Once the grass has grown, it’s time to move on to the second step: cutting the grass. This is pretty self-explanatory and works much like when you cut your grass at home, just on a much larger scale. After cutting the grass, there are a couple steps that allow for the forage to dry before baling (for hay).
Tedding and Raking
Tedding and raking are two steps that help the hay dry without ruining it. Tedding flips the grass so it can dry more thoroughly. Raking is the final step in the drying process and pulls the hay into rows for easier baling.
Baling is the final step of the process. This is when the farmer packs the hay into either a square or a round bale and tied together with twine or netting. To make silage or baleage, we then wrap the forage in plastic to keep the moisture in the bales and keep the air out.
Hay takes a little longer since it needs to dry out before being baled. Silage and baleage however do not need to be tedded or raked, so the grass is cut and baled as quickly as possible to keep it from drying out.
For many people on the outside, hay seems like something inconsequential. However, the decisions and processes surrounding making hay, silage or baleage have a large impact on our girls and our operations.