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Hay Growers Operate Around Spring Rains
VERONA, Miss. -- Spring rains have given all Mississippi farmers a challenge to overcome. But untimely rains causing a poor quality crop could mean a loss of profits for growers and costly supplements for livestock owners next winter.
Timing is important in hay production -- from fertilizing before moderate rainfall to cutting when the crop is mature to harvesting before rains reduce nutrients.
Dr. Pat Bagley, head of the North Mississippi Research and Extension Center in Verona, said rains are making the first cutting of hay a challenge.
"Growers want to cut hay when the seed heads first appear. The longer they wait after heading, the lower the quality," Bagley said. "They also have to watch the weather forecast. Sunny days are especially important after cutting to retain nutrients through proper drying."
Hay is the third leading crop in the United States. Corn leads with a $23 billion value. Soybeans, with a value of $12 billion, are just ahead of hay, which is valued at $11.8 billion nationally.
Bagley said high demand and low cost of production make hay an attractive crop.
"Alfalfa hay, which is grown mainly in the West and North Central United States, is the No. 1 cash crop in the nation. Historically, it is the most profitable of all crops to produce," Bagley said. "Most Mississippi farmers grow bermudagrass and bahaigrass or mixes as a hay crop."
Bagley said demand for hay is high to support the No. 1 and No. 2 agricultural commodities nationwide -- beef and dairy cattle.
"Cattle make up 38 percent of all agricultural economic activities in the United States," Bagley said. "There are more than 100 million mother cows in the country. About 55 million of them are in the Southern states."
Bagley said each beef cow eats about four 1,200 pound bales of hay per winter. Dairy cows eat more because of their size and production demands.
If the nutritional value of the hay has been diminished, livestock owners must spend more money on supplements during the winter.
Growers process most hay in large round bales averaging between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds each. These bales are easier to harvest and feed because of a lower cost of handling.
"The cost of small square bales increases dramatically because of the additional labor costs," Bagley said. "Small, square bales usually cost around $1.75 in the field to $3 if the grower handles the bales."
These square bales, fed mainly to horses and special livestock, cost about $120 per ton, compared to $40 per ton for large round bales.