There’s something special about the smell of a freshly cut hayfield in the heat of the summer. But whether you have a cattle farm (Leasing Cattle Land | What You Need To Know) and need to support them over the winter, or just have some extra fields you hay to sell to neighboring farmers, the bottom line is that harvesting hay is just plain hard work. Even when you have great hay cutting equipment at your disposal, it takes time and effort to manage your fields well enough to produce the best quality hay. So if cutting hay is a part of your summer routine, here are some tips to maximize your production and ideas to make a little extra side income off of it.
Common Hay Mixes
As far as how to make hay, the general process is pretty easy: plant a given species or seed mix, let it grow, cut it, let it dry/cure, and bale it. But regardless of whether you feed the hay to your own livestock or sell it to another farmer to feed to theirs, you should always focus on producing the highest quality hay if you want to make the most money from it. Depending on what plant species you use, what soil conditions you have, when you are actually cutting hay, and how you treat it afterward, the nutritional value of hay could change significantly.
As a general rule though, legume seed mixes tend to have the highest quality (are most nutritious), while perennial grasses are capable of providing the greatest yields. Obviously, the more hay you can make, the higher your potential income, but farmers also need high-quality hay to feed their animals. The best hay will be palatable (animals like to eat it), digestible (forage breaks down easily in the animal’s gut), and nutritious (rich in nutrients). As far as how to tell when a hay field is ready to cut, it all depends on what you are growing. Cutting hay at the right growth stage is important, because of the nutrition changes throughout the season. As plants mature, the yield increases because the plants get bigger or more numerous, but they become less digestible because their crude protein is replaced by tough fiber. The latest date to cut hay will depend on where you live and what condition the plants are in.
Legumes and Grasses
As mentioned, this mix strikes the right balance between nutrition (legumes) and yield (grasses), so it is also very commonly used across the country. Legumes are nitrogen-fixing plants, which means they actually fix nitrogen from the air into the soil. This helps them become high in crude protein (up to 30 percent) and also to fuel the annual grasses growing with them. Legume species used in hay fields include alfalfa, clovers, or trefoils. Some of these species are also used as cover crops to build the soil health over time by tilling it under in the fall. Alfalfa has a deep taproot to help it avoid drought effects. Many clovers don’t fare as well in those conditions but are very productive in spring and fall. Common perennial grasses planted with these legumes are discussed in the next section below.
Cool Season Perennial Grasses
Perennial, cool-season grasses are capable of producing high yields each year, which is why many people incorporate them into their hay production. They grow best early and late in the season when the temperatures are more moderate and the precipitation is abundant. During the summer, however, they can get over-mature, significantly slow growth, or even go dormant. When harvested at the right stage (different for each species), they can still provide fairly high crude protein levels, but not to the extent of legumes. Common species include timothy, bluegrass, ryegrass, orchardgrass, fescue, and brome.
Native Warm Season Grasses
Increasingly common these days for cutting hay is the use of native warm season grasses. These species and the plant communities associated with them made up the vast prairies of the Great Plains. They grow best during the middle of the summer (the period when cool season grasses go dormant) when temperatures are hottest. Their extensive and deep root systems make them very drought tolerant as well. Because they are adapted to different regions, they can often grow well without any additional fertilizer/lime needs, but they will likely improve with some additional inputs. The downside to these grasses is that they can be slow to get established, weed control is very important early on, and they require prescribed burns every 3 to 5 years to maintain their vigor. Species used for hay production include big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, indiangrass, and Eastern gamagrass.
How to Improve Hay Production
Besides having the right equipment (e.g., the best hay tractor, square baler or round baler, hay rake, etc.), there are different things you can do to increase hay yields. Assuming you have some hayfields that you want to maximize or revamp when you are cutting hay this summer, here are a few different options you could try.
If you have hayfields composed mostly of grasses, it might be worth adding some legume species to them to increase their total nutrition and diversify it a little. In the late winter or early spring, try frost seeding clover seeds over your fields. The thawing and freezing action help incorporate the seeds into the soil for you without having to till and plant yourself. Over the next season, you should notice more clovers popping up in your fields. Alfalfa fields might require a total reboot of the field, so frost seeding is a nice option to try easily.
Although people think of hayfields very differently, they do require regular care just like row crops. Conduct a soil test on each of your various hayfields to get an idea of what nutrients are lacking. Make sure you apply enough lime to the soil because lime helps plants utilize more of the existing nutrients in the soil – in other words, you might be wasting fertilizer applied to plants growing in acidic soil (most soils). A soil test will also help you identify how much of a given nutrient to apply depending on the species you will plant. For example, legumes need less nitrogen, so why spend money on it when you don’t have to?
For fields of native warm season grasses, fire really is an essential management tool. If you have never burned it, seek help from a state or county agency. They can help you conduct your first prescribed burn, which has several benefits, including: removing overall biomass and thatch, killing any new woody shrubs or trees invading the field, recycling nutrients into the soil, and exposing the ground to the sun to stimulate earlier growth in the spring.
Other Income from Hayfields
If you already do some of these practices while cutting hay, there are other ways to earn a nice passive income from your land. Hayfields often offer tremendous habitat and food resources for many species of wildlife, which means hunting can be great. If you don’t currently hunt your land but want to find new ways to earn money on it, leasing it to hunters is a great option. It allows you to earn money on your land twice over (from hay and leasing) and keeps trespassers at bay. Additionally, hunters might even help keep the crop damage down on your property by removing a few deer each year. If this sounds good to you, one of our agents at Base Camp Leasing can help you develop a listing for your property and discuss the potential leasing rates you can expect to earn. Just sign up at the form below.
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