Turn grass into money

It makes no economic sense to produce poor quality hay.

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“Make hay while the sun shines,” goes the saying. I think it would be more appropriate to say: “Make the sun shine on you by making quality hay.” The truth is, making low quality hay will lead to economic disaster. Eragrostis curvula hay has, at best, a moderate nutritional value. For example, if top quality Eragrostis hay is fed to weaner calves ad lib, their liveweight gain is unlikely to exceed 600g/day.

Few farmers achieve high levels of weaner performance because they don’t focus on producing quality hay. Instead, they strive to produce ‘stomach fillers’ to keep their animals alive through the winter. This is economic madness! Mind you, it’s not only farmers. I’ve known scientists who make the same mistake. I was one of them. Fortunately, we can learn from our failures. Let me tell you how I discovered that not all Eragrostis hay is equal.

Differs radically
In the early 1970s I took up a position at the Bethlehem Research Station, now the Small Grain Centre. My first task was to execute a research project for a senior scientist who went off on extended sick leave. One component of the project was over-wintering cross-bred weaners. This entailed the feeding of various winter rations. One test group received only Eragrostis hay. These animals did surprisingly well, with an average liveweight gain of 600g/day.

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This also surprised the senior scientist when he returned to take over – so much so he decided to over-winter replacement heifers on Eragrostis the following winter. This turned out to be a disaster. They hardly gained in weight at all. The shocking truth is that neither of us had thought about the possibility that hay made on the same research farm could differ so radically from year to year or, for that matter, from cutting to cutting.

Mineral balance
The first step in producing quality hay is to ensure the soil has a healthy mineral balance and to adopt a balanced fertiliser programme. This won’t won’t go down well with many Highveld farmers because it can be expensive. Most have planted Eragrostis on low potential soil which is drought sensitive. Money spent on soil mineral correction and on fertiliser is considered high-risk. Farmers ‘cope’ with this situation by applying only nitrogen at a very low rate.

The grass is cut in late maturity to yield maximum bulk. This practice has a relatively low input cost, but in terms of returns it’s very expensive. 

In Table 1 I’ve calculated the cost of 1kg of liveweight gain of beef weaners fed either high or low quality hay. A few explanations are called for:

  • Weaners will eat more quality hay than poor quality hay. My assumption is that the daily intake will be 5,5kg and 4,4kg per weaner per day for high and low quality hay respectively.
  • The assumption is that it will cost at least R200/t to produce high quality hay. Keep in mind that it costs about R400/t to cut and bale alone when all costs, including the cost of machinery, are taken into account.
  • The bottom line reveals that the hay cost per kilogram of liveweight gain is R8,25 (R900/109kg) and R63,63 (R700/11kg) for high and low quality hay respectively. Now we see that it really is a case of moderate profit versus a dead loss. 

Yes – poor quality hay is very costly!

If you look at the table above, you can see that in terms of liveweight gain it pays you to produce decent quality hay.
The losses on a diet of low quality hay do not compensate for the lower input costs. The message here is that you can’t afford to produce grass hay on low potential soils – it’s too risky if you want high quality hay. There’s only one way out. That’s to replace the grass, or infuse the existing sward, with Sericea, which doesn’t require nitrogen or expensive soil mineral correction.

Next time round we’ll look at the common mistakes being made in the production of Sericea (prosperity lucerne) hay.

John Fair is a leading expert on pastures and founder and head of the SA Biofarm Institute in Harrismith. Contact John on 058 622 3585 or at
[email protected]. Please state ‘Biological farming’ in the subject line of your email.