Get the Greatest Value from Your Spring Grass Hay Crop

Missouri cattle prices are at an all-time high. Yet the last few years of high grain prices have put pressure on grain farmers tear out some fences and cultivate every available acre.  Crop acres are up and hay acres are down.  High beef prices will put pressure back on land owners to ensure we have enough grass acres to feed an expanding herd. 

We can grow grass in Missouri.  Missouri grass successfully feeds both a thriving cow-calf industry and the grazing dairy industry.  Cool season grasses grow in the cooler spring and early summer, as well as, in the early fall of the year.  New spring growth has a high forage quality. 

Many grass producers wait until July to cut hay, when the rains have tapered off and work slows down.  A single, July cutting will produce the most tonnage, but not the highest quality hay.  Cutting hay in May has a higher value in quality than the value of the larger quantity of hay cut later.  When it comes to managing your cool season, spring flush, quality has more value than quantity. 

Early harvested hay can have a Total Digestible Nutrient content or TDN of over 60% while later hay can easily be below 50% TDN. When this hay is fed to the momma cow next winter that is staying warm and nurturing a calf, small differences in digestibility make a big difference energy intake.  The energy demands of this gestating cow are high and her feed must be as energy-dense as possible, or she will pull extra energy from her own, stored reserves.

As grass ages during the growing season it gets tougher and senesces.  This is true whether the grass is harvested as hay or is grazed.  In fact, one of the reasons that intensive rotational grazing works so well is that the forages are not allowed to get old and tough.  Intensively grazed paddocks keep the forage in a perpetual state of new regrowth.  Harvesting and feeding tough, low quality hay can work, but low quality hay must be offset with expensive, high energy feed supplements. The economic trade-off here is one of giving up the convenience of summertime hay-harvesting with a high-cost of winter hay supplementation for more direct management of spring growth with lower winter feed costs.  

Some basic examples of the cost of hay supplementation have been developed by David Hoffman, Regional Livestock Specialist in Cass County.  Meeting the energy needs of a gestating cow in a Missouri winter that is fed tough, low quality, late summer hay will cost between 50 cents to a $1 per day in corn and soybean meal.  Better, average quality hay requires feed supplementation that costs about half that much per day.  While the highest quality hay we produce in Missouri can actually meet a gestating cow’s winter nutrient requirements without additional supplementation.

Travis Harper, Regional Agronomy Specialist in Henry County uses five years of local weather data to illustrate just how difficult it can be to cut hay and get it bailed during a Western Missouri spring.  It rains often and there are real risks of baling rained-on hay.  But he can also show that the lower quality of rained-on spring hay can still be higher than the quality of late summer hay that hasn’t been rained-on.

Some Missouri grass growers have had success grazing their hay fields in May and then haying them later in the summer when it is more convenient.  This allows the grazing cattle to benefit from the high quality spring growth and delays the development of tougher, older, low quality hay.  When the newer, regrowth hay is cut later in the summer it will also have higher digestibility.  By grazing it early and haying later, feed quality will have remained high throughout the season.

The take home message here is that harvesting, higher quality, newer-growth hay is a greater economic investment than cutting lower-quality, summer cut hay. 

Source: Mark Jenner, Ag Business Specialist