Getting the most from your single-cut hay system

For a variety of reasons, many hay acres across Michigan are harvested only once per year. Here are some tips for good results in this situation.

Hay field mowed and into round bales
Identical scene of hay mowed into windrows (top) and nine days later as round bales (bottom). Photo by Jim Isleib, MSU Extension.

Why use a one-cut hay system? Multiple hay harvests during the growing season are the commonly accepted management practice in Michigan. However, there are local circumstances that make a single-cut system a reasonable choice. For example, many thousands of farm acres in areas of Michigan’s eastern and western Upper Peninsula support predominantly timothy/trefoil hay stands on poorly drained, clay soils. These areas have a very short growing season and untiled clay soils, which are often soft and unstable during wet periods, especially in spring and fall. Many of these farmers harvest dry hay using a late July/early August single-cut system. The resulting hay is used primarily to feed beef cattle and horses or trucked for sale out of the region. The quality is usually acceptable for this purpose. In recent years, hay markets have remained fairly strong compared to weak prices for other Michigan cash crops.

In addition to challenging soil conditions and the constraints of a short growing season, low land costs help to make a one-cut hay system viable in these areas. The chance for success with cash crops such as corn and soybeans is quite low, making hay and small grains the most attractive cropping options. This results in low land rent and land purchase prices. Hay is the best, maybe the only, economic option.

The Upper Peninsula isn’t the only place where hay is only cut once in mid-summer. On farms in more moderate climates where time and labor are in short supply, maximum yield is not essential and top hay quality is not required, a single cut system may be adequate.

Maximizing the value of a single-cut hay system involves some basic, time-proven practices similar to multi-cut systems.

Plant maturity at time of harvest is still important, even though most single-cut hay farms harvest late, compared to the first cut on a multi-cut farm. Most single-cut hay, harvested only once in midsummer, will have lower protein, digestibility and general nutritional value than hay harvested at an earlier plant maturity, but will (hopefully) be acceptable for its intended use if fed to animals with low to moderate nutrient demand. Waiting too long can result in even coarser, stemmier, lower-protein and lower-value hay. The goal is to maximize yield without giving up too much quality.

Forage species selection for the single-cut hay system involves using later maturing grasses. Timothy is a late-flowering grass, which makes it a good candidate for a single-cut system. Birdsfoot trefoil is a good companion with timothy. Birdsfoot trefoil does not tolerate a lot of competition in the seeding year, which matches well with timothy or forage-type Kentucky bluegrass. If orchardgrass or other perennial forage grass is used, later-maturing varieties should be selected. Alfalfa, red clover and ladino clover are also good hay components, but will lose quality after flowering more quickly than trefoil.

Baled hay
Baled hay in Ontonagon County. Photo by Jim Isleib, MSU Extension

Soil fertility should be considered carefully with a single-cut system. If too much hay growth is encouraged, the resulting crop could be hard to dry thoroughly before baling. High yield swaths and windrows take more time to dry, increasing the possibility of rain damage. Extra tedding and raking to assist with drying can result in excessive leaf shatter and loss of quality.

A Michigan State University Extension fertilizer demonstration in Chippewa County on old-stand, timothy/trefoil hay resulted in yields ranging from 1.5 dry tons per acre (no fertilizer) to 3.1 dry tons per acre (full fertilizer rate recommended by MSU Soil and Plant Nutrient Laboratory). Economic analysis indicated that a single crop removal rate fertilizer application over the three-year period was most advantageous in terms of cost per ton of dry matter produced. However, the host farmer indicated that he would never want three tons dry matter in one cutting because it would be too hard to dry and bale. He said the normal 1–1.5 tons dry matter he gets without fertilizer is about right. It’s a different way of looking at hay production.

Basically, the single-cut hay crop can’t be too much to handle for your equipment and expected drying conditions. Soil testing will provide important information about the pH, potassium and phosphorus status of any hay field and should be included in the management of single-cut hay fields.

The importance of rain during curing, moisture at baling and good bale storage are not different from a multi-cut system.

On most farms, single-cut hay systems are not usually recommended by MSU Extension. However, there are cases where this practice makes sense. Having a good understanding of the forage species in your field, soil fertility and forage grass and legume characteristics can help you manage the single-cut hay system to your best advantage.

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