Tips for a successful forage harvest

First cutting alfalfa harvest details make a positive difference.

Alfalfa wide swath at 75 percent of cutting width. Photo by Phil Kaatz, MSU Extension.
Alfalfa wide swath at 75 percent of cutting width. Photo by Phil Kaatz, MSU Extension.

Each spring, there’s usually a very long list of things producers need to complete on a timely basis. A couple years ago, I asked several very successful farmers what made the difference between doing very well compared to just getting by, and the answer was pretty uniform across the group. If a producer pays attention to the details for what they’re doing and does things on a timely basis, they will be more successful. That’s great advice! Having priorities from day to day will help farmers be more successful as they go through their lists. The focus of this article is to provide some key management tips for forage producers, based on scientific research, to help them during the growing season.

During the winter, Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan Forage Council hosted the 2016 Great Lakes Forage and Grazing Conference. Dan Undersander from the University of Wisconsin presented the keynote address, Advances in Haymaking. His main points are summarized below.

  1. Take first cutting by plant height. Producers should measure the height at the top of the plant stem, not the tip of the leaflet. Consider harvesting at 28-29 inches in height to get the best compromise between yield and quality of the crop. Research findings show a daily change of -0.25 percent in crude protein, +0.36 percent in acid detergent fiber and +0.43 percent in neutral detergent fiber as the alfalfa matures.
  2. Use the widest swath possible (more than 70 percent of cut area) when cutting for faster drying and higher forage quality. The wide swath provides the best opportunity for alfalfa plants to lose the first 15 percent water as fast as possible. Conditioning is necessary for hay but not haylage. Alfalfa and alfalfa/grass mixtures for hay should be conditioned with a roller conditioner, not a flail conditioner.
  3. Reduce the amount of leaf loss in alfalfa. Retaining the most leaves possible has been a long standing recommendation by forage experts. Alfalfa leaves are 15-20 percent neutral detergent fiber whereas the stems are 55-75 percent neutral detergent fiber. Making sure machines are adjusted correctly and the operating speed have the largest effect on reducing leaf loss at harvest.
  4. Bale at the proper moisture levels to prevent mold growth and heating in storage. For square bales, the general recommendations are: small squares 19 percent moisture or less, medium square bales (3 feet x 3 feet) less than 16 percent, and for large square bales (4 feet x 4 feet) less than 14 percent moisture. For round bales, the general recommendations are: small rounds (4 feet wide x 5 feet high) less than 18 percent moisture, medium rounds (5 feet wide x 5 feet high) less than 16 percent moisture, and large (5 feet wide x 6 feet high) less than 15 percent moisture.
  5. Remove hay/haylage from the field as rapidly as possible to minimize wheel traffic damage. Research shows there is a 6 percent per day reduction in yield of the next cutting for every day the field is driven over after cutting. Wheel tracks will damage the crown buds that produce the next cutting’s growth. Producers that tend to leave bales in the field for several days following baling will sacrifice yield unless they pick up bales immediately.

The Great Lakes Forage and Grazing Conference is an annual event for forage producers across the region and has provided excellent educational opportunities for all types of farmers. Don't miss it next year. Other educational events are planned for this summer for Michigan Forage Council members and friends. Visit the MSU Extension Forage Events page for these upcoming educational events.

For more information, contact me at or 810-667-0341. 

Did you find this article useful?