Don't wait, harvest orchard grass now

May 15, 2007|by JEFF SEMLER

Fieldwork has been going at a dizzying pace. Corn and soybeans are being planted, while barley and alfalfa are being chopped and ensiled for next fall and winter's feed. Harvesting grass hay is next on the to-do list.

Even though there are many types of grass that grow in our area, we predominately grow four types of cool season perennials for hay and pasture. These grasses are orchard grass, fescue, timothy and brome grass. Bluegrass is also grown here, but is used almost exclusively for pasture.

Some "eager beavers" have already taken advantage of our weather and cut their orchard grass, which is to their advantage because the hay is vegetative and of higher quality.

Many people try to split the difference and go for higher yields while sacrificing on quality, in other words harvesting the grass when it is more mature.


Maturity is an easy thing to determine with these grasses - look for the heads. You will easily notice the orchard grass heads as they appearing now in a field near you.

As these plants mature, these heads or flowers actually will produce pollen with the intent of producing seed. For those with hay fever, it is this pollen that causes you the problem.

Hay is one of our forage resources that is often taken for granted and not properly managed. As I said, orchard grass should be made now if it has not already been made.

A lot of people make hay by the calendar and not by looking at the plant. Memorial Day is a favorite target for haymaking and July 4th is another.

By Memorial Day this year, orchard grass and fescue will be mature and of poorer quality. There will be more of it, but the more is mostly stems and the feed value is in the leaves. Timothy and brome grass may be ready to harvest then or shortly thereafter.

Timothy is a favorite of horse owners and they know it is timothy because of the head they see in the hay. This, of course, means the hay is of lower quality.

The good news is most horses in our area do not need good quality hay because they are not work horses. Today, most are large pets that are rarely even ridden. Excellent quality hay would probably lead to fatter horses.

Brome grass is a very forgiving forage. It is a grass that has patience and will wait for you. It is the grass that matures the latest and will retain its quality even when in head.

As with anything, there are downsides - brome grass is slower to establish and yields a little lower than the other grasses.

A good management plan with brome is to plant it with timothy and, as the timothy wanes, the brome fills in. When properly fed and cared for, brome will last a very long time.

July 4th hay - unless it is brome grass and even the brome may be getting a little long in the tooth - is usually what I call first- and second-cutting hay. Meaning we are taking both cuttings at once.

Depending on the fertility, rainfall and date of first harvest, it is possible to get a second cutting of orchard grass in July but with most of the other species, second cutting will come later.

Before I leave the grasses, I will address one more issue and that is fertility.

Hopefully, the hay was fertilized last fall. And, early this spring, the question is, should it be fertilized after first cutting?

As with many things in farming, that is a hard question to answer. If we get adequate moisture, the answer is yes. But if you have lived here any amount of time, you know that rain in the summer is very unpredictable.

Because we are removing the hay from the field and, by extension, the nutrients, the soil needs to be fed.

So even with higher fertilizer prices, do not short your hay fields. If you have manure, go ahead and use it after first cutting. Of course, with all feeding of crops, follow your nutrient management plan recommendations.

As you probably noticed, I only mentioned alfalfa as silage earlier and not as hay. Three reasons - first, most first-cutting alfalfa is taken as haylage. Second, most folks manage alfalfa very well and don't allow it to get too mature like they do with grasses. And last but not least, alfalfa is a legume and not a grass.

As I close, we are thankful for the recent showers and look forward to more. So give your corn planter a break and make a little hay.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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