Making First Cutting Hay in Caldwell County

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Farmers in Caldwell County have been busy this week making hay. They are making “first cutting” hay. One obvious way to know hay is first cutting is the seedheads. Cool season grasses such as fescue and orchardgrass only make a seedhead once a year in the spring.

Grasses can be difficult to identify. One easier way to identify them is by the seedhead. The most common pasture and hayfield grasses are tall fescue and orchardgrass. Another grass that is abundant this year is a wild bluegrass called roughstalk bluegrass. The scientific name is Poa trivialis. Roughstalk bluegrass is basically a close relative of annual bluegrass (Poa annua). The main difference is roughstalk bluegrass is a perennial and it will grow taller than annual bluegrass. Both of these weedy bluegrasses cause trouble for the turf industry, but they are not a problem for cattlemen.

seed head

From left to right, roughstalk bluegrass, tall fescue, orchardgrass, cereal rye, and annual ryegrass

I don’t recall noticing so much roughstalk bluegrass in previous years. It seems to be a significant component of every field I look at this spring. It’s likely the wet weather this past fall and winter is the reason there is so much of it now. Either way, it is in abundance now, and unless you are managing high-quality turf, roughstalk bluegrass is not a problem.

Other forage grasses that are flowering now are rye and ryegrass. These are both annual plants unlike perennial grasses previously discussed. Since rye and ryegrass are annuals, they have to be planted each fall. Often, these two grasses are confused with one another. Rye, or cereal rye, is a smallgrain. Other smallgrain grasses we are familiar with are wheat, oats, and barley. You can make bread from the seeds of cereal rye.

Bread cannot be made from ryegrass. It can be a weed in smallgrain fields. To be more specific, ryegrass is often called Italian ryegrass or annual ryegrass. Annual ryegrass is a great forage for livestock farmers, but is a major weed for crop farmers.

Typically, ryegrass is a superior forage for grazing livestock as compared to fescue or orchardgrass. However, forage quality can be influenced by many factors. The biggest factor for forage quality is age. The older the grass is, the fewer nutrients, the lower the protein, and the higher the fiber. On the flip side, the older the grass, to a point, the more tonnage there is to harvest. This is the classic conundrum of quality vs quantity.

How can you know the nutritional quality of hay? You can know the quality of hay by taking a sample and having it tested. The N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services maintains a forage testing lab that can determine the energy, protein, and nutrients of hay, silage, and fresh forage. The information from a forage test is helpful when feeding animals. The report basically provides a feed tag type analysis.

cows eating

These animals are eating hay and a grain supplement. Hay quality varies. Hay testing provides nutritional information to know if supplementation with energy, protein, or minerals is needed.

Besides forage testing, the lab can analyze homemade feed/grain mixes, too. This can be very helpful to be sure the animals being fed will perform as expected.

I have helped farmers test homemade feed mixes for cattle, pigs, and chickens. Sometimes these mixes were excellent in meeting the needs of the animals, and sometimes the mix recipe needed a little modification to meet the needs of the animals.

A complete feed analysis is $10. The report will give the moisture, protein, fiber, and minerals (Calcium, Phosphorus, Sulfur, Magnesium, Sodium, Potassium, Copper, Iron, Manganese, Zinc) of the feed. This report can be used to predict animal performance.

If you have an interest in testing your hay or feed stuffs, contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Caldwell County Center (828.757.1290). I will help you access the North Carolina laboratory resources.