Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Help the Sun Make Hay When It Shines!

As the sun makes its appearance once again in Ohio, many forage producers are looking forward to making hay. But you should be patient to wait for firm soils before trying to mow the crop, especially in alfalfa. In addition, if your alfalfa is yellow and short, it could use a little time to recover from waterlogging stress.

Once the soils are firm though, how can we get hay cured as quickly as possible? There are proven techniques that shorten the time between cutting and storing the crop. Most of this article is reprinted with permission from an article published in Farm and Dairy on June 2, 2010, available at http://www.farmanddairy.com/top-stories/make-hay-when-sun-shines-but-take-steps-in-case-weather-wont-cooperate/15050.html. It still applies this year.

Haylage vs. hay:
Consider making silage or haylage instead of dry hay, whether it is stored in silos or bagged silage or as wrapped bales. Since haylage is preserved at higher moisture contents, it is a lot easier to get it to a proper dry matter content for safe preservation than it is to make dry hay. Proper dry matter content for chopping haylage can often be achieved within 24 hours as compared with to 3 to 4 days for dry hay.

Proper dry matter content for silage ranges from 30 to 50% (50 to 70% moisture) depending on the structure used, while wrapped balage should be dried to 40 to 55% dry matter (45 to 60% moisture). Compare that to dry hay that should be baled at 80 to 85% dry matter (15 to 20% moisture), depending on the size of the bale package. The larger and more dense the package, the dryer it has to be to avoid spoilage

Mechanically condition the forage:
Faster drying of cut forage begins with using a well-adjusted mower-conditioner to cause crimping/cracking of the stem (roller conditioners) or abrasion to the stems (impeller conditioners). At least 90% of the stems should be cracked or crimped with roller conditioners or show some mechanical abrasion when using impeller conditioners.

Some excellent guidelines for adjusting these machines can be found in an article by Dr. Ronald Schuler of the University of Wisconsin, available online at (http://www.uwex.edu/ces/crops/uwforage/storage.htm).

Consider chemical desiccants:
Desiccants are chemicals applied when mowing the crop that increase the drying rate. The most effective desiccants contain potassium carbonate or sodium carbonate. They are most effective on legumes than grasses and most useful for making hay rather than silage or balage.

Desiccants work best under good drying conditions, but don't help much when conditions are humid, damp, and cloudy. Consider the weather conditions before applying them.

Maximize exposure to sunlight:
Exposure to the sun is the single most important weather factor to speed drying. So the trick is to make the sun shine on as much of the cut forage as possible. This can be done by making the windrows as wide as possible, especially this time of year when our dry weather windows can be short. Wide windrows provide for maximum forage surface area to be exposed to the sunlight.

I once heard someone say "You can’t dry your laundry in a pile, so why can you expect to dry hay that way?"

The swath width should be about 70% of the actual cut area. The mowers on the market vary in how wide a windrow they can make, but even those that make narrow windrows have been modified to spread the windrow wider. Details can be found in articles at the Univ. of Wisconsin website mentioned above.

Another way to spread out and aerate the crop for faster drying is with a tedder. Tedders are especially effective with grass crops, but can cause excessive leaf loss in legumes if done with the leaves are dry. Tedders can be a good option when the ground is damp, because the crop can be mowed into narrow windrows to allow more ground exposure to sunlight for awhile, and then once the soil has dried a bit the crop can be spread out.

When making haylage, if drying conditions are good, rake multiple wide swaths into a windrow just before chopping. For hay, if drying conditions are good, merge or rake multiple wide swaths into a windrow the next morning when the forage is 40 to 60% moisture to avoid excessive leaf loss.

Recent research studies and experience have shown that drying forage in wide swaths can significantly speed up drying. Faster drying in wide swaths results in less chance of rain damage, and it produces higher quality forage. Studies reported by the University of Wisconsin showed that wide swaths (72% of the cut width) result in lower NDF and higher energy in the stored forage.

Consider a preservative:
Sometimes the rain just comes quicker than we have time for making dry hay. As mentioned above, making haylage helps with this problem, but another option is to use a preservative.
The most common and effective preservatives are based on proprionic acid. This acid can be caustic to equipment, but many buffered proprionic preservatives are available on the market that reduce this problem.

The preservatives inhibit mold growth and so allow safe baling a moisture contents a little higher than the normal range for dry hay. Carefully follow the manufacturer directions and application rates when using preservatives.

Watch wet bales carefully!
If you do happen to bale hay at higher moisture contents than desired, keep a close watch on it for two to three weeks. You should invest in a hay temperature probe and monitor the internal temperature of the hay during the first three weeks.

Every year someone’s barn burns down because of spontaneous combustion of wet hay. So if you have hay that is on the wet side, keep it outside or in a well-ventilated area. Don’t stack wet hay either, because that prevents the heat and moisture left in the hay from escaping.

It is normal for hay to go through a “sweat” in the few days after baling. Internal temperatures of 110 F in the first five days after baling are quite common in our region and are not a concern.
Hay bale temperatures of 120 to 130 F will likely result in mold growth and will make the protein in the hay less available to animals. But at those temperatures, there still is not a danger of fire.

The concern is if mold growth causes the temperature to go even higher. If the temperature in the hay continues to rise, reaching 160 to 170 F, then there is cause for alarm. At those elevated temperatures, other chemical reactions begin to occur that elevate the temperature much higher, resulting in spontaneous combustion of the hay in a relatively short period of time.

My hope is that a disastrous hay fire never happens to you or someone you know! It can be avoided by careful attention to the management practices I’ve outlined here and of course with a little cooperation from the sun! My best wishes to you for quick, safe, and successful hay and haylage making this season!