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Caleb Alexander knows firsthand that harvesting practices make or break the quality of alfalfa hay. “We harvest straight alfalfa in small square bales for horse owners,” he says. “The hay has to be leafy and as green as possible, with absolutely no mold.”
Alexander, 24, works with his father, Eldon, on the family’s farm near Garden City, Kansas. The younger Alexander started his hay business at age 16 as part of an FFA project.
The enterprise mushroomed, and today he puts up 25,000 to 40,000 small square bales of alfalfa each year for customers in several states including individual horse owners, feed stores, and feedlots needing hay for pen riders’ horses.
“Most of my clients are repeat customers,” he says. “Many of them I’ve had for the duration of the eight years I’ve been in business.”
The hay business is a perfect fit for the farm’s major enterprises of growing corn, soybeans and alfalfa, raising beef cattle, and the custom-feeding of yearlings.
“My father has 350 acres of irrigated alfalfa, and I buy the hay lying in the field for grinding price. I can buy whatever I want, so if the hay is stemmy or if the swaths get rained on so we can’t put it up as horse-quality hay, we’ll round-bale it and feed it to the beef cattle.”
Baling the alfalfa in first-rate condition and selling it as horse hay adds a premium of $50 to $100 per ton over what the alfalfa might earn if sold to local feedlots to be ground and added to finishing rations.
While Alexander harvests hay to fit the dietary needs of horses, classes of livestock differ in the quality of hay required.
“The nutritional quality of the hay harvested should be determined by the kind of animal that’s going to eat the hay,” says Bruce Anderson, University of Nebraska forage specialist. “Lactating dairy cows, for instance, need hay that is extremely high in quality. Dry beef cows, on the other hand, only need a quality of hay that will provide a maintenance diet. Horses typically don’t need supreme quality, but they tend to be more selective in what they will eat.”
Manage three harvesting criteria to match your hay quality to livestock class.
1. Plant Maturity
“The factor most influencing hay quality is the maturity of the plant at harvest,” says Anderson. “If you want the highest quality, you want relatively young plants at cutting. Protein and digestible energy decrease with plant maturity. Cut alfalfa at prebloom to get the highest quality hay.”
If cutting is delayed until full-bloom stage, protein can decrease from 25% to 15%, and relative feed value can lose 60 to 80 points, dropping from 200 to 120.
To best meet the needs defined by his market for horse hay, Alexander harvests alfalfa before it reaches 10% to 20% bloom. He finds that this stage of maturity gives a good balance between quality and yield. (See sidebar at right.)
2. Stem Thickness
"Because horse people are concerned about the size of stem, we find that first-cutting alfalfa is too stemmy,” Alexander says. “Our highest-quality hay comes from fourth- and fifth-cutting alfalfa. Because hay from these cuttings doesn’t grow as tall as the first-cutting hay, it’s leafier and has a finer stem.”
The extra leaf material makes a big difference in nutritive content. “Leaves can contain about 30% protein, while stems might be 10% protein,” says Anderson. “Energy concentration in leaves is nearly twice that of stems.”
3. Moisture At Baling
Preserving color and leaf while preventing mold in the bales is a balancing act. Alexander aims to bale hay with at least 13% moisture but less than 22%. “We let the hay get bone dry in the field and then wait for the outside humidity to come up to 50% at night before we start baling,” he says.
During nighttime baling, he probes hay periodically to ensure appropriate moisture levels.
“When we let alfalfa get extremely dry in the field and then wait for humidity in the air, the leaves pick up enough moisture to cling to the stems during baling,” says Anderson. “But because the hay has dried completely, it is less likely to pick up enough moisture to cause mold.”
The Alexanders continue to look for ways to speed up drying time in the field, thus reducing risk of exposure to wet weather and bleaching of hay.
“We rake alfalfa the day we bale, pulling two swaths together,” he says. “But we recently bought a hay machine, so we’ll double-rake a windrow and then fluff it to speed up drying time.”
They presently cut alfalfa with a sickle header, which minimizes the amount of soil mixing with the hay. “Disc headers seem to create a vacuum that sucks up soil along with the hay,” he says.
Alexander’s near-term plans include working in India for three years. Afterward, he hopes to return to his family’s farm. In the meantime, his father and brother, Seth, 16, will continue the hay business.
“Selling high-quality horse hay is a good way of adding value to the alfalfa we produce,” Alexander says.
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