April 29, 2019

Take These Three Steps To Cut Forage Losses

 |  By: Mike Opperman

High quality forage doesn’t just happen, there are many variables to be managed to get forage from the field to the pile to the feed bunk. Timely communication and proper training are important so you can maximize the window Mother Nature give you to get hay cut and harvested. 

We realize cutting timing varies by region, and that some of you may already have first crop harvested while others are just getting ready. Here are three key strategies for success, regardless of where you are in the harvest schedule:

  1. Be ready to go. Regardless of when the hay is ready to cut, have the equipment and people ready to go. This means not only having the equipment in good working order, but also having adequate communication with the team doing the harvesting. Communication is especially important when working with a custom operator. 

“The arrangement with a custom operator is a partnership,” says Matthew Digman, assistant biological systems engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin. Remember that your custom operator may have more than one client, each with specific needs. “In alfalfa, some of the custom harvester’s clients may focus on quality while others may wait for higher tonnage. It is important that you, as the producer, communicate your needs with the operator and that they integrate this information into their schedule.”

Have these conversations with your custom harvester early in the year, Digman says, not two days before your first cutting.  

2. Pack and cover. Once you’ve gone to all of the work to get alfalfa harvested the right way, be sure it gets stored properly as well. This comes down to two important areas:

  • Density: A desired density for a bunker silo is 15 to 16 lbs of dry matter per cubic foot, according to Keith Bolsen, professor emeritus at Kansas State University. To determine pile density, he recommends producers use a spreadsheet to input the ton per hour delivery rate to the pile, the number of tractors used to pack and the estimated tractor weights. 

“This predicts the density ahead of time,” Bolsen says. “If the prediction is below the desired density, producers can add additional tractor weight.”


  • Coverage: Be quick about covering the pile as soon as possible after harvest to encourage anaerobic fermentation. Don’t skimp on the thickness of the plastic either, says Renato Schmidt, technical services – silage with Lallemand Animal Nutrition. He recommends covering bunkers with dual-layer plastic (black on the inside, white on the outside) that is at least five millimeters thick. Weigh the plastic down with tires or some other form of weight to prevent air from getting between the plastic and the forage. 

In some areas regulations have prohibited the use of waste car tires to weigh down plastic. Check your local rules and regulations to identify any restrictions in your area.  

3. Be safe. With all of the moving parts and large equipment used in hay harvest, accidents can happen at any time. Be sure to include a safety overview in pre-harvest employee meetings. Here are a few keys to highlight:

  • Equipment: Forage harvest and handling equipment has many areas where limbs can be injured, including power take-offs, cutter bars, conditioning rolls, gathering rolls and rakes. Go through proper handling procedures with each employee before harvest begins. 
  • Transport: “If you have safely harvested your crop from the field, transporting it back to the farmstead is no time to let your guard down,” says Dennis Murphy, professor emeritus with Penn State Extension. Make sure the tractor or truck used to transport the forage is large enough to handle the weight on the road if any hills are involved. Make sure brakes are in good condition, and that operators are well-trained on vehicle operation. 

Remember, no cell phones! Many producers will terminate vehicle operators on the spot if caught using a cell phone while operating a vehicle during harvest.

  • Working on the pile: Driving heavy equipment over a pile that could be as high as 20 feet poses significant safety risks. 

Proper forage harvest can make or break a year’s worth of production, or more, on the dairy. Making sure all employees understand their roles and responsibilities, including safe working procedures, will go a long way toward putting up the best forages Mother Nature will allow.