While we've all been focused on getting planting done between the rains, our established forage crops have quietly been growing rapidly. I hate to say this, but first cutting of forages is just about upon us. Orchardgrass was just beginning to shoot a head in central Ohio last Friday. The alfalfa stands that were not severely injured by winter are looking great and growing fast.
For high quality feed, such as for lactating dairy cows, pure grass stands should be harvested in the late boot stage just before the heads start to peek out. So for orchardgrass in the central and southern half of Ohio, that means harvest should begin as soon as the weather and soil moisture permits.
A timely first and second cutting is critical for high quality forage. Fiber accumulates faster in the first two growth cycles in May and June than it does later in the summer. In other words, for high quality forage, take your first and second harvest early. Then you can extend the cutting interval in late summer (July into August), because the quality penalty for delayed cutting is much less in late summer than it is this time of the year.
While a timely first cutting is critical to high quality forage, you should consider giving that up this year for forage stands that suffered winter injury. Winter injured stands should be allowed to grow longer this spring and get into the bloom stage to allow energy reserves to build up. This will help the plants to recover from winter injury and regrow the rest of the summer. Use that forage for animals having lower nutrient requirements.
If high quality isn't such a concern, we still have a little time before first harvest. For beef cows or other animals with lower nutrient requirements, you can harvest forage in the bloom stage for adequate quality, and it will provide higher yields. But don’t get too comfortable waiting. Keep an eye on the forage because it changes fast this time of year.
Hay harvest timing is an important management tool whether you need high quality forage, high yield, or a compromise of the two. With the rapid development of forages, be ready to take advantage of the breaks in the weather. Every spring this is a challenge in Ohio! Hopefully after this week we will get enough of a break in the weather that you will be able to get some high quality forage harvested before the soil is ready for planting once again.