Date posted: 22 February 2016
With the weather being warm and sunny recently, our resident farmer suggested it was time to cut and bale our City Crop lucerne to make high quality hay – the perfect snack for hungry dairy cows!
Lucerne hay is valuable because it provides farmers with a food source that can be easily stored and transported throughout Australia… and internationally for that matter.
With high levels of protein; fibre; minerals such as calcium potassium, sulphur, manganese and zinc; and vitamins such as beta-carotene, lucerne hay is extremely nutritious. In fact it has been estimated that a diet of at least 50% lucerne can help dairy cows produce up to 10,000 litres of milk per year!
There’s a science to making hay. First, farmers must choose the right variety to suit their environment. They then manage its growth to ensure the plant is as healthy as possible. There’s seven easy steps when it’s time for a farmer to make hay:
- Visual assessment: Hay is cut when about 10% of the crop is flowering. At this stage, the plant is full of energy, protein and sugars. Plants must have a high leaf-to-stem ratio – the more leaves the better because they are packed with nutrients.
- Mowing: Using sharp blades – like a lawn mower – the lucerne stems are cut above a point on the stem called the crown. The height must be perfect because cutting too low will damage the crown and affect the plant’s ability to regenerate.
- Conditioning: A conditioner machine is used to “squish” the plant stems and leaves. This process helps extract nutrients and make it easier for cows to digest. It also increases the speed and consistency of drying.
- Drying: The cut and conditioned lucerne is left in rows to dry out. Warm days with low humidity, plenty of sunlight and wind are ideal for drying hay. Drying stops the plants’ chemical and biological activity and reduces the possibility of the hay going mouldy.
- Raking: The hay is raked into long heaps called a windrow. This row helps stop the hay from blowing around the paddock and means it is all lined up and ready for when the baler comes.
- Baling: Balers use hydraulics to pack the hay into tight bales. Care must be taken to ensure the leaves and stems remain intact and that the moisture in the hay is just right. If the bale has not dried out enough, it will turn into a hot compost heap that could start a fire!
- Storing: Hay bales are transported and stored. They can be stored for years – like a well-stocked pantry!
Overall, about 7,500 lucerne growers throughout Australia grow around 200,000 hectares of lucerne annually for hay, producing about one-million tonnes of hay. It's a rewarding task and is all part of the process of getting the milk to your glass.