LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — If you’re a cattle producer, the last thing you want to do is run out of hay in late December. Running out of hay can force a farmer to pay top dollar to out-of-state hay producers to make it through the winter. However, shortages can easily be prevented if you plan ahead, says John Jennings, forages specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

“One of the best tools available for hay production is a soil test,” said Jennings. “Fertilizer applications based on soil tests will more likely match the crop nutrient need than an application based solely on rule-of-thumb.

"Proper fertilizer timing is also important. Forages such as bermudagrass can be harvested several times a season, so fertilizer can be applied several times a season to maintain good production.”

Fertilizer costs have been high in 2004, which may cause many producers to cut back on fertility applications. But fertilizer and weed control are two production factors farmers can use to increase yields.

“Spring weed control is important in bermudagrass and bahiagrass hay fields,” said Jennings. “Uncontrolled winter annual weed growth can cause yield loss in bermudagrass hay fields. Bermudagrass fields overseeded with ryegrass are susceptible to shading from late-spring ryegrass growth. Allowing ryegrass to remain too long can cause the loss of one cutting of bermudagrass hay.”

Managing pastures for stockpiled forages in fall and winter can reduce the amount of hay needed in winter, Jennings says. Bermudagrass pasture can be stockpiled from August through October for late fall grazing, and fescue pasture can be stockpiled from September through December for winter grazing.

Poor growing conditions with excessive weed competition and poor fertility levels can lead to hay shortages. Jennings says, “Dry weather is the most common cause of below-normal hay yields, but dry weather combined with weed pressure or low fertility causes more severe drops in yield.”

The ideal conditions for a good hay crop vary depending on the species. According to Jennings, for fescue, orchardgrass, clover, and ryegrass, moderate temperatures below 80 degrees with good fertility and moisture are needed. For bermudagrass and bahiagrass, moisture, fertility and high temperatures above 85 degrees are needed. Night-time temperatures below 60 degrees can greatly slow bermudagrass growth.

Hay crops in 2004 may have mixed results, Jennings warned. “Cool-season grasses produce most of their growth in spring. Some areas of the state had good growing conditions this spring, and the crop should be normal. Other areas were dry earlier this spring and may have a short hay crop. Warm-season grass growth has just started, so yields are unpredictable.”

If you have to buy hay, there are several factors to consider.

According to Jennings, most imported hay is fed to dairy cattle or horses. Quality is the key factor farmers should take into account when buying hay.

In 2002, Extension demonstrations documented that hay costs were 52 cents per head per day for good quality hay, but when hay quality was low and required supplementation, feed costs jumped to $1.22 per head per day.

Producers buying hay should ask for a hay quality test before buying. Producers selling good quality hay should get their hay tested as a marketing tool to justify the value of their hay.

“It’s important to produce or buy hay that meets the nutritional needs of the livestock being fed,” said Jennings. “Poor quality hay costs just as much to bale as good quality hay, but it costs more in the long run from lost animal production.”

Cody Ford writes for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. 501-671-2187