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How to Reduce Hay and Silage Drying Time in the Field

Tractor Moving HayFarmers, the ultimate high-stakes gamblers, walk a fine line — between too much and too little sun, too much and too little moisture. Nowhere is that fine line more evident than in the hayfield. Mother Nature gives no guarantees she will provide the optimum window of time for harvesting forage vegetation, whether for baling or ensiling. In humid, cool areas of the United States, the farmer may need four sunny days between cutting and baling.

Fortunately, there are ways to reduce that time frame and improve the odds of ending up with high quality hay and silage.

Cutting Height

Obviously, the farmer wants to harvest as much crop as possible. At the same time, a sturdy stubble left in the field provides a useful drying platform, allowing airflow between the mown vegetation and the moist soil. The stubble also minimizes the risk of contaminating the harvest with ash from the ground.

Wide Swaths

The wider the swath in which vegetation lies after cutting, the better. Tests show that windrows measuring at least 70 percent of the cut width dry much more quickly than narrower windrows. The broader width increases sun exposure and ensures good airflow on the shady side. Even with less than ideal mowers, the farmer can usually adjust his equipment to widen the swath. Many agronomists call a wide swath the single most important factor in a high-quality hay and silage production.

Swath Manipulation

Swaths dry unevenly, with the bottom layer lagging considerably behind the top layer. Many farmers use tedders to spread out the swaths, to maximize the exposure to air and sunshine. Others use inverters to flip the swaths. Using tedders and inverters successfully is — once again — all about timing. The idea is to wait until the top layer is fairly dry. Waiting too long, however, could result in excessive loss of dry matter because of breakage.

Conditioning Equipment

Specialized machinery that conditions the just-cut crop remains somewhat controversial among farmers. Many balk at the initial purchase price. Others object to yet another processing stage — adding to labor, fuel costs and the risk of increased dry matter loss. Studies conducted by Cornell University suggest the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, however.

Conditioners crack open the stems of grasses, legumes and similar forage crops. This process broadens the surface area of the cut vegetation and also redresses the imbalance in the drying time of stems and leaves. Unprocessed stems, safeguarded by a waxy coating, typically take longer to dry.

There are two basic types of mechanical conditioners:

  • Roller crimpers-made of rubber or steel, work best with crops like alfalfa.
  • Flail impellers are best used for grasses.

Chemical Conditioners

Drying agents, sprayed on the crop at cutting time, can also speed up the drying process. These desiccants — solutions typically based on sodium or potassium bicarbonate — are harmless and effective. The sheer volume of liquid required adds to the processing cost, however.

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