Timing your hay cuttings is a balance between forage quantity and quality. As we approach this season’s final cuttings, a third factor weighs heavily: next year’s productivity. Consider when — or if — you take off another cutting and how that could affect the long-term productivity of your hay fields.
A hay cutting in late fall is a good way to obtain more forage. But if you don’t time that cutting properly — especially with legumes, such as alfalfa and clover — you can increase the amount of winterkill or reduce the production from next spring’s first cutting. For pure grass stands, fall cutting is much less of an issue. In fact, left unharvested or grazed, grasses tend to mat and provide cover for diseases.
During the fall, fewer daylight hours signal alfalfa and other legumes that it’s time to begin storing energy in their taproots and crowns. For northern climates, University of Wisconsin forage specialists recommend cutting early enough (early to mid-September) to allow plants time to regrow and replenish root carbohydrates and proteins before a killing frost. Another option is to delay the last cutting until near the time you expect a killing frost; that way, plants don’t regrow or use the energy reserves they’ll need for winter survival and spring regrowth.
Extension specialists at The Ohio State University recommend the late harvest option only if:
- Soils are well-drained
- The alfalfa stand is healthy
- The variety exhibits excellent winter hardiness
- Soils have good fertility status (Alfalfa in fields with low pH — 6.5 or less — or low potassium is more susceptible to winterkill, University of Wisconsin research shows.)
Cut it right. Put it up right.
Even if field conditions favor a hay cutting in late fall, unpredictable weather and longer curing times can make putting up the crop especially challenging. Your Case IH dealer can help ensure your hay equipment is ready. In addition to routine maintenance, consider replacing sickle sections or disc mower blades. Sharper cutting surfaces make cleaner cuts. That means less leaf loss and reduced stem damage for higher-quality hay and quicker plant recovery — an important consideration heading into winter.
Forages are valuable. An extra cutting can provide a drought reserve, reduce reliance on purchased feedstuffs or give you more product to sell. If you take off the crop at the right time and under the right conditions, the benefits likely will outweigh any long-term risks.