May 13, 2012

Farmers gearing up for busy spring

Peter Hagar: Cornell Ag Connection

---- — For the local dairy farmers who depend on the quality of their crops to make milk, hay harvesting nowadays is usually done by making haylage.

Haylage is hay that is mowed and harvested while still at a high enough moisture content to support fermentation. It can be chopped and ensiled in silos, bunks or ag bags; or can be baled into large round bales that are wrapped in plastic or stuffed into giant tubes.

The purpose of the silos or plastic tubing is to exclude all air from the forage to allow for fermentation. A certain type of organism, the Lactobacillus bacteria, converts the carbohydrates in the plants into lactic acid. They continue to produce lactic acid and lower the pH of the forage until they can no longer function. At this point, the hay is fermented and can be stored for quite some time without loss of quality.

Making haylage has several benefits. One of the major advantages is that the crop can be harvested when it is ready during almost any weather conditions. In order to harvest high-quality forage, it must be cut early in the spring to maximize the protein, digestibility and palatability of the feed.

In the past, when harvesting dry hay, farmers needed to wait for three or four days of hot and sunny weather to cure the hay. Now farmers can cut and harvest their hay crop in 24 to 36 hours or less. Local farmers usually hope to start the harvest in mid-May when forage quality is at its peak. By harvesting the first cutting early and quickly, subsequent cuttings can be taken at regular intervals throughout the summer.

Harvesting forage as haylage also has the benefit of reducing labor by allowing farmers to utilize more mechanization. Silage is chopped into large wagons or trucks and stored in silos, ag bags, the long white tubes seen on many farms, or more commonly piled and packed into bunk silos or mounds.

After packing, the plastic excludes the oxygen and the old tires keep the plastic from blowing away in the wind. As the silage cures, it takes on a pungent, vinegary smell that cows love. It can then be fed with a loader and mixer wagon and used for total mixed rations — a crucial part of most dairy farms' feeding program.

Silage has become the primary storage option for grass forage for dairy cattle, due to advances in harvesting technology, silo types, plastic covers and mechanization for feeding.

With early and quicker harvesting comes an increase in feed value. As plants grow and mature, there is a fine line between quality and quantity. Many years of plant breeding and selection have been dedicated to develop forage varieties that will provide the best of both worlds.

A dairy cows needs top-quality forage to reach high levels of milk production. Because the cost of corn and soybeans is at record high levels, farmers would much rather feed home-grown forage. The more protein and energy that can be grown on the farm, the more dollars the farmer may be able to put in the bank.

Since our North Country growing season is short, dairy farmers depend on these stored feeds to maintain consistent milk production. By timely harvesting and proper ensiling of forages, cows can be fed a consistent diet year round. And while today's cows are less often pastured outside, the forages that are ensiled and fed inside are often more palatable and of higher quality than could be obtained in the more traditional grazing scenario.

The good old days of summer pasture usually ended up providing forage of low quality, low quantity and resulted in low milk production. In today's modern dairy farming, the high-quality stored forages result in ever better diets and increasing milk production.

The Cornell Cooperative Extension offices of Northern New York — Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence — have recently teamed up to offer residents in our region a resource for information and research specific to Northern New York. Visit to learn more about the diverse and vibrant rural counties of Northern New York. For local information and assistance, contact your local CCE office at 561-7450 or email

Peter Hagar, agriculture program educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Rt. 22, Plattsburgh, 12901.