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The most important ingredient

Tips for producing top-quality forage
By Todd Steen, TFC Nutritionist 3/17/2021

Forage is the most important ingredient in all herbivore diets. As animal breeding has produced higher-performing genetics, proper rations start with the most optimum forage quality that can be grown. That quality is ultimately determined by its digestibility, and the animal will always be the final determiner as to how good the forage is. 

Remember, the better the forage, the less a producer must rely on additional, purchased feed supplementation. There are multiple factors affecting forage quality, including environment, plant species, and soil fertility, just to name a few.  

Below are a few points to keep in mind as forage production time nears.

• Producing top-quality hay begins with planning, and it is always wise to properly evaluate and maintain equipment prior to both seeding and harvest.

• The greatest variable with forage production is weather. While it is common to have 3–4 days without rainfall with no significant impact, extended dry periods can pose challenges. 

• Be aware of plant moisture before harvesting. As a general rule, the drier the plant, the greater the maturity and fiber concentration. Generally, forage should be 12–16 percent moisture before attempting to bale.

• If conditions prevent forage from drying to the desired moisture content, additives/inoculants can protect against extreme spoilage and loss. Remember: rake while moist, bale when crisp.

• As plants mature, indigestible fibrous portions can cause the animal to take longer to digest which, in turn, will result in lower consumption. That’s why you want to begin to mow and bale hay before the forage is too mature. 

• The leafy parts of the plants provide better digestibility than stem portions, and vibrant, green leaves provide better nutrition than brown, dead leaves, so it is better to rake and bale hay before it dries out too much. Raking dry hay can exacerbate leaf loss.

• How a producer cuts, harvests, and stores forage plays a significant role in preserving high-quality leaf content regardless of plant species. Bale wrappers or storing hay under cover preserves quality.

• Set a goal of harvesting forage at four weeks of regrowth.

• The general recommendation when dealing with more mature hay crops is to utilize a conditioner which will crimp and crush stems of the newly cut hay to promote faster and more even drying. 

• Laying hay in wide swaths will maximize sunlight and wind exposure and may reduce drying time. If the forage is too dry, begin cutting in morning while it is still damp from the dew.

• Nitrogen fertilization is useful to increase crude protein for the most part, but has little significance on energy, vitamin, or mineral content of forage. 

• Observing forage as it grows is critical to identifying problems related to pests, mold, etc., but for an in-depth analysis of overall forage quality, consider having your fields professionally assayed. 

As always, your Co-op Feed and Animal Health professional can assist you with questions concerning your feed and forage program.

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