Hay, hay … good lookin’

Published 9:26 am Wednesday, June 22, 2011

by Neil Clark

Often overlooked, forages — part of which is hay — are considered Virginia’s third largest crop by some accounts.

Adding 1.5 million acres of land in Virginia that is hayed each year to the 3 million acres of pasture, and it is more clearly seen why about 70 percent of beef and dairy value can be attributed to forages.

And goats, sheep, alpacas, horses and other smaller acreage grazers derive a much larger proportion of their diet from forage. Green pasture is preferred when it is available, but then grass in its stored form, hay, is used to supplement during winter months, or even in the summer season in severe drought years such as 2010.

Obviously southeast Virginia has a lower proportion of pasture and favorable areas for grass production given other higher-value crops that are in the rotation. However, there is a growing proportion of Western Tidewater in small lots and ranchettes that house or support horses and small ruminants that require hay from time to time.

Higher fertilizer prices this spring did hinder the value of producing hay, especially on many of the poorer soils. This year’s crop is looking very good in most places. We have had enough rain for good growth, yet have avoided some of the disease pressures that sometimes accompany cool, moist springs.

Then this recent dry spell, while not too good for corn growth, was excellent for making hay. Rain during hay making is quite detrimental to hay quality as the nutrient-rich leaves decay, degrade, or mold. Hopefully most farmers had enough opportunity to get in their valuable first cutting.

And most were able to cut it at the optimal time, just before heading, when the most protein is present in the plant. The leaves contain two-thirds of the protein found in hay therefore their preservation is essential.

Many species of grass and clover in addition to alfalfa are grown for hay. Alfalfa is a highly prized hay, bringing another 20-30 percent higher price than general pasture grass hays due to its exceptional nutritional value, especially for the dairy industry.

However the soils and climate of the eastern United States are not the best for alfalfa, thus production in this area is limited.

Timothy is another plant that is highly favored amongst horse owners, but also not very favorable to the growing conditions of this area.

Of course site-specific variables should be used to determine the best choice for a particular field. However an orchard grass-red clover mix has a higher probability of success with limited inputs for our area. Many of the Bermuda grass hybrids are also drought tolerant and perform well in some of the sandy soils of this region, but require sufficient inputs.

Applying 100 pounds of nitrogen at green-up and about 60 pounds every 30 days until August can produce two to five tons per acre of 8 to 14 percent crude protein feedstock off of four cuttings.

According to a 2008 survey of Virginia horse owners, traditional small square bales are still favored due to equipment, storage and feeding logistics. The price of these bales ranged from $2-$9 with the majority being orchard grass, followed by mixed grass and Timothy.

More market info about hay can be found at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services website www.vdacs.virginia.gov/marketnews/hay.shtml.

Virginia Cooperative Extension has a wealth of information on the production, handling and evaluation of hay, so please contact us if you need help.

NEIL CLARK is a Virginia Agriculture Extension Agent, serving as Southeast District Forestry and Southampton Interim. He can be reached at southeast@vt.edu.