Frequent rains create obstacles for hay
Harvesting delayed, ranchers consider other options for cattle
For farmers and producers trying to harvest their hay for the season, frequent rain has become a serious problem.
According to Tim Schnakenberg, regional agronomy specialist based in Stone County, hay should ideally be harvested in early May, because that is when it matures and has the most nutritional value.
"We need the moisture to rebuild our sub soil moisture so in some ways its a mixed blessing," said Schnakenberg, who added that in many areas of the Ozarks, producers have not been able to successfully harvest dry hay since the last few days of April, which is not good.
"We usually need a good three to four days of good drying weather with full sun and elevated temperatures to dry hay down to 18 percent moisture, which is preferred for baling dry hay," he said.
While it is common for rain events to be so frequent in the month of May that producers cannot always get hay harvested on time, this year is different, Schakenberg said.
"It does seem to me to be unusual that we've had very little opportunity throughout the entire month of May so far," he said. "It's not unusual that there will be a week or so open up, but in this situation, we're just not getting those days."
On a lighter note, Schnakenberg said that producers did have a wonderful opportunity to make hay in late April when there wasn't any rain.
"There were several farmers that started, and they didn't produce much, but the hay they harvested was outstanding quality," he said.
Schnakenberg referenced the cliche' that the producers literally made hay while the sun was shining and took that opportunity.
"So, while the majority of producers will be anxious to put up their first cutting of hay when the sun comes out, the folks that were able to get hay off earlier will be making their second crop in about 30 days and it will also be of outstanding quality," he said.
Schnakenberg said hay schools teach that even it it is April, it pays to go ahead and take that cutting when the sun is out during drying conditions.
Some producers are taking advantage of alternative means to make hay, whether the sun is shining or not.
"The ones getting hay successfully harvested this year are putting up wrapped baleage," Schnakenberg said. "It's where the big round bales are baled wet at 50-60 percent moisture then put in a tubule liner, wrapped in white plastic and sealed off air tight. That's a growing trend. But there are a lot of folks that don't have that equipment available."
The end result is the potential shortage and quality of fescue hay crop which is what most producers are harvesting. Schnakenberg said the fescue is fully headed and going to seed.
"The quality of the hay is dropping rapidly so it gives us fear that the overall quality of the hay crop does not look good," he said. "We have just gotten very little hay harvested in the Ozarks this year, and the hay we do harvest may not meet the nutritional needs of our cattle over the winter."
That means that farmers and producers may have to spend more money to supplement their feed, such as buying feed sources to get their cattle through the winter, or go outside the area to find hay that's better quality.
"We recommend that they get a hay test as it's going to be more important this year than ever," he said. "We can send samples to a laboratory to find out, or help them find a laboratory so they know the quality they're working with."
Moving forward, Schnakenberg advises producers to watch the forecast very closely and when the opportunity affords itself, to get right on it and make hay while the sun is shining.
Another concern is fescue toxicosis.
"In addition to lower quality you have to assume that the ergot properties of the hay could increase," said Reagan Bluel, regional dairy specialist for the University of Missouri Extension Service. "It's a disease called fescue toxicosis. Some producers call it hot fescue. What that means is it possesses the ergot fungus that can be harmful for the cows, and the longer you wait to make hay the more likely that it will be present as it's in higher quantity in the seed head than in the leafy material, but we're past that at this point. Almost all the fescue has gone to seed.
"As you drive around, you can see there's been a lot of fescue that's not yet been harvested," she said. "To ensure high-quality nutrition, we recommend producers would receive a higher quality forage before it goes to its reproductive state. You know it is in its reproductive state when it has a seed head."
Bluel agreed there was a window early in the season to make hay but if producers didn't get in on that opportunity they were going to be facing the situation where they are making hay with a lower nutrition quality and possibly exposing cattle to fescue toxicosis.
To minimize the risk of exposing cattle to the disease, Bluel recommends diluting hay by feeding cattle some grain.
"Producers must harvest grass, by grazing or haying, before seed heads emerge," said Rob Kallenbach, University of Missouri Extension forage specialist.
Kallenbach said that while haying early makes less hay bales, it also makes fewer nutrition-empty bales to store and move for winter feeding.
"I'd rather have 500 bales of hay without seed heads than 1,100 bales of mature grass with seeds," he said. "For winter feeding, I'd rather have nutritious grass that doesn't need a supplement. With that 1,100 bales, it will take a lot of corn gluten or other supplement to keep cows from starving."
But, to make hay in May means producers must beat the rain.
"It can be done," Kallenbach says. "There will be a few days of sun. But you must be ready, like a mousetrap. Snap them up. If you wait until the first day of sun to see if the equipment works, you'll miss haying days."
Kallenbach's advice to producers is to, make hay in May.
"That's kind of poetic," he said.
For more information or to get hay tested, farmers and producers can call the University of Missouri extension office in Barry County at 417-847-3161.