Early July is the optimum time of year to be haying native grass pastures for hay. There are some basic production practices to maximize production potential of these hay meadows. Since native hay meadows are a long-term investment, they should be managed in such a way to sustain long-term productivity.
The predominant grasses in native hay meadows include big bluestem, eastern gammagrass, indiangrass, and little bluestem. There are many other native grasses, forbs, and legumes that can also contribute to the hay meadow productivity and diversity. Examples of undesirable plants include annual threeawn, Broomsedge bluestem, Purple top, thick-spiked tridens, and tall dropseed.
The most important management practice is cutting date. In most years the optimum cutting date will be between July 1 and 10. Harvesting native hay at this time will achieve a good balance of forage yield and forage quality and will allow the native stand to recover the rest of the year to sustain production for following years.
The main key to managing any perennial hay field is to maintain a balance between forage yield and forage quality. Time of cutting will be the primary production practice that will determine the forage yield and quality. The maximum forage yield and maximum forage quality hardly ever occur at the same time. Hay tonnage will typically peak in late August, while crude protein and digestibility are usually highest in May.
The second most important management practice is proper cutting height. Cutting height can easily be overlooked, but can be highly detrimental to a native grassland if producers get a little too greedy and cut too low in order to try to get a little more tonnage. Native grasslands should never be cut below 4 inches. The reason cutting height is important is that native grasses elevate their growing points during this time period. If the growing point is cut off, then production will be greatly reduced for next year's growing season.
Cutting height is also important because most of the native grass species need time to re-grow to build root carbohydrate reserves. To sustain a native hay meadow, it is recommended to only harvest it for hay once a year. Native grass species grow rapidly through May and June, but will exhibit slow re-growth in July after harvesting a hay crop. In addition to the slow growth, the re-growth is often less palatable as well. Native species have adapted through natural selection for these traits to ensure grazing animals will not exhaust the root carbohydrates prior to winter dormancy.
A vast majority of research conducted by Oklahoma State University has shown that forage tonnage can be increased with an application of fertilizer, however it is rarely economical to do so. When adequate moisture is available during spring and early summer, 30-80 pounds of actual nitrogen fertilizer can increase hay yield and crude protein. Herbicide applications are rarely warranted on native grasslands. If managed properly, there should be a mix of native forbs and legumes that benefit the grass production.
Good management practices include harvesting prior to mid-July, leave at least 4 inches of stubble, harvest only once during the growing season, and manage the re-grown forage in the dormant season with either fire or grazing.
Information that is more specific can be found from the OSU factsheet "NREM-2891 Native Hay Meadow Management".
Another thing to thing to always consider when talking about hay is testing the hay for quality. Test results can be used to determine how much hay it will take to feed cows in the winter or as a tool hay producers use to determine if they cut the grass at the proper time.
If you have any other questions about native hay production please feel free to come by the OSU Extension Office 14001 Acme Rd Shawnee, call (405) 273-7683 or email firstname.lastname@example.org<mailto:email@example.com>. Have a wonderful weekend!