First Harvest of Forages is Just Around the Corner!

Mark Sulc & Thomas E. Noyes

The first harvest of forage crops is just around the corner, in fact orchardgrass for dairy cattle will be ready for harvest in the southern part of the state as soon as fields dry out, if it isn't ready already. First harvest of forage crops and planting of row crops will probably be in conflict this spring. This is a tough choice to make, but for dairy farmers high quality forage is essential, and should be given priority over row crop planting, especially if the row crop to be planted is silage corn.

The optimal time of harvest depends on your forage quality goals. Harvest in the boot stage for high quality orchardgrass, ryegrass, tall fescue, and reed canarygrass. Timothy and bromegrass harvest should be delayed to the early heading stage, because they are not very tolerant of cutting in the pre-heading stages.

For pure stands of alfalfa, we can estimate the quality of the standing forage, and base the optimal timing of harvest on that estimate Fiber concentration, particularly neutral detergent fiber (NDF) content, is the primary variable of concern when evaluating quality of alfalfa for use by ruminant animals.

On May 1st, the estimated NDF content of alfalfa was 32.4% at Columbus, 32% 
near Millersberg, and about 29% northeast of Wooster in Wayne county. Last spring, alfalfa did not reach 32% at Columbus until May 20, so alfalfa development this year is well ahead of 1997 (this should come as no surprise, given the early spring this year). The optimal NDF content of alfalfa for lactating dairy cows is 40%. We would expect alfalfa NDF to increase by about 5 or 6 NDF units in the next 7 to 10 days. The bottom line is that alfalfa development is well ahead of last year, so be prepared to make an earlier harvest this year to achieve quality forage. Hopefully the rains will slow down soon so we can get planting and harvesting done in a timely manner!