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To Bale or Not to Bale? To Clip or Not to Clip? Here Are Some Answers

Let’s ponder two questions with this article: “To bale or not bale?” and “Should I put up hay or just buy what I need?” I think everyone, no matter how efficient or the type of grazing system, should have some hay on hand. It is your insurance plan; one of your contingency plans. Feeding less hay is a good thing though, at least it should be – meaning that you are hopefully grazing more.

Rolling up nutrients. Photo by Victor Shelton
Rolling up nutrients. Photo by Victor Shelton

Smaller operations, especially ones with less than 15 cows or equivalents would have a difficult time justifying owning hay equipment. That depreciating investment would probably be best spent on improving the grazing efficiency of the farm or on fertility. I have to be careful here not to step on toes, but I’ve seen people buying a lot of hay equipment so they can stop buying hay and perhaps even “sell” some hay. While they really could have gotten away from using very little hay, they have spent their money on iron and then often mine their soils to help pay for that equipment. Can you really sell that hay for enough to replace the nutrients and pay for labor and equipment? Not likely.

If you are in what I will refer to as a “building” stage of soil fertility – in other words, it still needs some, then you would be better off bringing in fertility, i.e., hay, than to remove it. This is true even if you are not selling it and utilizing it yourself. You are still most likely removing nutrients from where they are needed and moving them to a “feeding” area where they are already high. Moving those “feeding” areas around some will certainly help, but still the more you can graze, the better.

If fields are in that “building” stage, it is counterproductive to cut hay off it – no question. You are just removing and moving needed nutrients – especially phosphorus. Let’s look at the cost for just a moment and compare it to grazing. Lets look at nutrient removal between two scenarios: grazing an orchardgrass/clover mix pasture or haying this same field. We’ll assume the nutrients are actually present. The grazing cost of nutrient removal is about $2.50 per ton dry matter produced. Hay cost from nutrient removal with the same nutrient values is about $40 per ton assuming that no or minimal nitrogen was applied and most nitrogen was supplied by the legume. So my question is, do you still want to cut hay off that field? Smaller operations are almost always better off buying what hay they need. You don’t have to fight the weather and you can actually shop around and buy good quality hay – often cheaper than you can raise it.

Except for some drought years, there is usually hay around to be bought. Plan ahead if you are going to be buying and if possible, visit the hay field from which your hay will come ahead of time so you have a better idea of the quality. If purchasing hay already baled or sight unseen, request a hay analysis to make sure it is the quality needed to meet your livestock’s nutritional needs just to make sure it really will beat “snowballs.” If you are cutting hay, don’t forget to get a soil test at least every 2-3 years and re-apply needed nutrients to grow more quality forage.

That’s enough on hay.

Mowing/Clipping Pastures

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

I’ve had several questions on mowing heights or clipping heights for pasture. Most tall cool-season grasses like tall fescues and orchardgrass would ideally be clipped right at leaf height removing present or emerging seed stems. If these have been grazed in a manner where the stand is very uneven, then mowing slightly lower might in order to help to even out the stand and encourage under-grazed areas. Perennial ryegrass and bluegrass would benefit from similar conditions, but of course will be shorter than the previously mentioned species to be best. Warm season grasses such as switchgrass or big bluestem should not need to be clipped this time of year.

I have to ask the question though, what is the reason for your mowing? If it is to improve or maintain quality – have at it – just don’t mow any shorter than necessary. If it is purely for aesthetics – you might be better off leaving it alone. Taller forages produce more live roots providing some drought insurance; can help to shade out some weeds; can provide for slightly cooler soils and maintain moisture which can promote more growth from cool season forages instead of less desirable plants and then the added benefit of some wildlife habitat.

Fast grazing over a paddock while the seed heads are still in the milk stage or at least still green can top these paddocks just about as good and if you tread some forage into the ground in the process, that’s okay too, it will be used to grow more and adds carbon to the soil. Quality is lost as the plant matures, but a few seed heads are not that bad; cutting too short and then having the weather turn hot and dry is typically worse. If you are going to clip, clip early and as high as possible! You mainly want to just remove seed heads and leave the solar panel (leaves). There are certainly more benefits gained from clipping early than later.

Recently, my wife and I went through a major life altering event. It has really made me stop and think about time lost over the years doing things that I thought were important at the moment, but could have waited or totally been ignored. We sometimes work harder than we need to. Hay, quite often, falls into this category. Cows have four-feet-drive, and a built in harvester and manure spreader. We need to take more advantage of this.

Don’t get carried away with the hay, and keep on grazing!

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Victor Shelton
Victor Shelton
For more than 25 years, Victor Shelton, Indiana agronomist and grazing specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has provided advice about grazing’s best practices. He travels across the state conducting pasture walks, working one on one with farmers and participating in grazing talks. He also writes a newsletter called "Grazing Bites" as a way to talk about current and seasonal grazing issues and what farmers need to be prepared for.


  1. The main reason I try to clip my pastures, and early, is to reduce the persistence of certain perennial weeds while encouraging forage grasses. However, clipping later, after grass and clover seeds mature, can be helpful is spreading those seeds (and weed seeds) around to help fill in thin places. This week I need to decide which of these goals I’ll try to achieve – but “clip later” will probably win because I have hay to cut. For pastures that are regularly tilled and reseeded, these concerns probably wouldn’t apply.

  2. We have a small farm in central Wisconsin. We raise pastured hogs on sandy soil and we start grazing all of our pastures between 12 to 24 inches. We graze using high stock density in each area for 24 hours. The forage is evenly grazed even the thistles. This works great in our area because the forage is knocked down and that holds our moisture and promotes very vigorous regrowth. On ten acres we can graze from April until December even in dry years. This was a great article

  3. I am a very small producer of meat lambs on 2 acres in Maine. While I always take the pasture down at some point in the summer, every year I do it earlier. I found that knocking it down when it is so high I can’t SEE the lambs was counterproductive- the amount of plant material covering the field would impede the growth of mid-season grasses & the pasture never came back into high production & I was forced to feed out hay. Had it clipped in late May this year; this is the earliest I have ever done it, and I am encouraged by the fact that these early grasses have not ‘burnt’ and continue to grow well. Also a factor in clipping at this time was the lushness of the feed & fear of bloat. While not burning off in the hot sun, there has been some desirable ‘drying’ of the grasses. Suspect I will have to clip again later in the summer, something I never had to do, but although my costs of clipping may well be doubled, I am still encouraged that I will be feeding less hay & the fields will be more productive longer.

  4. Good article and one that I follow being a small time rancher. One thing I have learned is don’t except someone’s remarks that the hay has been “fertilized and weeded”. A lot of the times it has been done, but they bale the weeds along with the grass and much of the time you don’t see it until you feed it out. Once you have found a dependable hay producer and you trust his word and hay analysis, stick with him. I now spend a good portion of my spring time trying to get rid of weeds I imported through bad hay.

    • Jane: Yes, sooner is normally better than later in this regard. Extended rainy weather has been a factor here in the Midwest and preventing a more timely clip. Prior to mature seed head production is certainly ideal.

      Don: Absolutely, you do have to be aware of what you are buying. Obtaining a sample for an analysis is always a good idea if buying very much and knowing the buyer…

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