Wet spring, wet soils, and wet hay…what should a dry hay producer do?

Tips for helping dry hay producers when faced with difficult harvest conditions.

First cutting alfalfa
Round bales of first-cutting alfalfa hay rest in the field before being hauled into storage. Photo by James DeDecker, MSU Extension.

Farmers who want to produce dry hay will be faced with the challenge of wetter than normal conditions due to the increased rainfall during the spring. The methods and principles for getting hay dry have not changed in the past decade or two, however, our weather patterns have changed. Unfortunately, it’s not for the better.

Storms now have become more intense increasing the potential for flooding and saturated soil conditions. Consequently, farmers who are faced with less than ideal drying conditions should consider the following tips to increase the likelihood of getting dry hay baled at the appropriate moistures.

Tip #1 – Cut hay after the morning dew dries.        

There is enough water that must leave the plants already without adding additional water from the nightly dew. Wet fields will also add to the moisture content of drying hay. Moisture gets soaked up from the soil into the bottom of the windrow if it is contact with wet soils, so keep drying hay off these soils.

Tip #2 – Wider is better.

Swath width is a critical to faster drying of hay. Swaths that are 80% of the total width cut will dry faster than a narrower swath. (See Figure 1.)

Effect of swath width on drying alfalfa
Figure 1. Decreased drying time due to swath width. Image by Dan Undersander, University of Wisconsin.

According to Dan Undersander, Forage Agronomist Emeritus, University of Wisconsin, hay will need half as much pan evaporation (dry twice as fast) when it covers the entire cut area as compared to covering one-fourth of the cut area. This is the most important thing a farmer can do to make hay dry faster.

Tip #3 – Adjust harvest equipment for proper conditioning

Proper alignment and adjustment should be done on the rollers or crimpers on harvest equipment to ensure forage is crushed or crimped evenly. This allows water to exit the forage at a faster rate. The best crimp will crush without pulverizing the stems. Over time, harvesting rollers or crimpers can become worn, especially in the center, which allows stems to go through the machine without the proper crimp or crush. For additional video discussing alfalfa harvesting, see: Comparing two haybines with and without Wide Thin Fins.

Tip #4 – When harvesting grass, use a tedder to speed drying.

A tedder is a practical piece of equipment, especially for grass, to speed drying times. A tedder will fluff the windrow and this will allow more air to go through the windrow. A tedder should not be used in alfalfa after partial drying due to leaves being torn off, subsequently decreasing quality.

These tips are not the only things a forage producer should consider for faster drying times in their hay. Weather always plays a major part of the hay drying process, and there’s not much we can do to change what has or will happen.

For more information, visit the Michigan State University Forage Research Program, or contact Phil Kaatz, MSU Extension educator at 810-667-0341 or at kaatz@msu.edu or Kim Cassida at cassida@msu.edu.

MSU Extension offers additional educational resources and programs to help farmers as they deal with delayed planting seasons at https://www.canr.msu.edu/agriculture/delayed-planting-resources.

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