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Time Running Short for Cutting Hay

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Written Friday, September 01, 2000  

Frustrated at the challenges of making hay in a rain-abundant year, Ohio and Indiana farmers should avoid getting in a last cutting after early September, says Ohio State forage agronomist Mark Sulc.

Alfalfa and clover stands need a rest during the fall, in order to allow root systems to build up carbohydrate reserves for winter survival, Sulc says. Forages need a six-week rest before the first killing frost, which usually occurs in late October or early November.

"A lot of research shows that whatever yields you gain from a late cutting in the fall are about the same amount you will lose in the spring cutting in the next year," Sulc says.

Farmers in northern Ohio should finish cuttings by Sept. 7, while those in the south can continue through Sept. 15, Sulc says. Cuttings in central Ohio should cease sometime between Sept. 7 and 15.

Overall, Ohio has had a good hay crop, but many farmers find it difficult making high-quality hay because of frequent rains, Sulc says.

"It happens every year," Sulc says. "Farmers' schedules get delayed by rain, and there's a fair amount of harvestable growth in late October. They take the risk of reducing the long-term potential in fields harvested during the critical rest period in fall."

As of Sunday (8/27), 73 percent of Ohio's hay was rated in good to excellent condition, compared to 24 percent for the same time last year, according to state agricultural statistics. Almost one-quarter of the crop was rated fair, while only 4 percent was considered poor.

Farmers short of forages should weigh the need for hay versus the potential damage caused by a late cutting, Sulc says. If they must cut late, these guidelines can help reduce the chances of winter injury:

* Be selective, and choose to cut fields that are healthy.

* Wait to cut after a killing frost, which is defined as temperatures of 25 degrees or less for a period of at least two hours.

* Select well-drained fields with optimum pH and high fertility, especially potassium. Pick fields planted with winter-hardy varieties.

* Do not harvest fields seeded this past spring or later.

* Allow 45 days of growth before making a fall cutting, allowing a carbohydrate buildup that reduces -- but does not eliminate -- risk.

* Making a third cutting in fall is less risky than a fourth one. Plants will be more rested under a less-intensive cutting schedule.

* Spare cutting fields weakened by severe potato leafhopper injury or by waterlogging during the summer.

* Keep in mind that a wet growing season can injure late-cut alfalfa more than it can during a year with less precipitation.

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