by Pat Miller

In the past 31 years, I have seen the date of fescue hay cutting get moved later and later.  Rain delayed 2019’s harvest into July.  When is the best time to cut fescue hay?  When it is in boot, that means before the seed head has emerged.  That may be late April or early May, depending on the year.  We don’t even have hay harvest on our mind that early.  Some years we may get a dry spell where we could get the hay up that early, but we have to be ready.  Fescue at late boot can be 13% protein with 68% digestibility.  At early milk stage (seed is forming) it will around 8.6% protein and 56% digestibility.  Much of the hay this year was much later than that and would be 6 to 7% protein and 50% digestibility, at best.  You may have good tonnage but about half of it is fiber that is not digested and goes out the back end of the cow.  

Consuming high levels of fiber slows cow passage rate, which reduces intake and makes cows less likely to eat enough hay to meet their nutrients needs.  One way to think about it is to liken it to shredded wheat cereal versus ribeye steak.  A 15 oz. box of the cereal would have 45 grams of protein.  6.25 oz. of ribeye would also have 45 grams protein.  I can down a small ribeye without batting an eye but there is no way I can finish off an entire box of that cereal at one sitting.    

When we end up baling fescue in July, one option would be to ammoniate the hay to improve digestibility, which improves intake, and protein percentage. Keep in mind that anhydrous ammonia is a dangerous product to handle and the hay has to sit to absorb it.  If ammoniating in the fall it may take six to eight weeks.  Here is a how-to guide:

Next spring be on the watch for a few dry days in late April or early May to cut your fescue hay. There may be less tonnage, but you will have a higher quality product that will require less supplement inputs to meet animal needs resulting in more profit potential for your cattle operation.   Cutting early also improves your chances of getting a second cutting and the hay will be lower in endophyte toxins.  If you need more information, contact your local University of Missouri Extension Agronomy or Livestock Specialist.