Watch for three days of good weather

Cutting hay in East Tennessee

Knowing when to cut your hay is critical for herd nutrition the following winter. Photo by P. McDaniels, courtesy UTIA.

As spring approaches, Tennessee’s pastures will be green and growing. For livestock farmers, it’s a welcome time to switch from feeding stored hay to having their animals graze in fields.

But remember, this spring’s pastureland is next winter’s feed.

“When hay is stored, we have a good source of nutrients for cattle that can be fed when it’s needed later,” said Gary Bates, a forage specialist with University of Tennessee Extension and director of the UT Beef and Forage Center.

Bates says it’s critical for farmers to know when hay is just right for cutting in order for their herds to eat well. “The most important factor that determines hay quality is the state of maturity at harvest,” he said.

As legumes and grasses advance in maturity, they actually drop in crude protein and digestibility. It’s best to cut grass pastures from the boot stage to the early head stage for the first cut, and then 4 to 6 weeks afterwards. The late boot level might best be described as when the seed head first pops out of the sheath. The early head stage is when the plant has grown about another foot or so.

Tall fescue or orchard grass hay cut early will be high quality, and good to feed a lactating cow or calf. These stages generally appear – if we receive a normal amount of moisture – around the first week of May in most parts of Tennessee.

Bates warns that waiting too late to cut hay could mean an additional expense for producers. “You will harvest plenty of tonnage, but it will be of low quality,” says Bates. “Then you might need a protein or energy supplement to meet the nutritional needs of your herd.”

Sometimes for producers it’s not possible to get all their hay cut during its proper stage, but Bates says it’s important to get some of it harvested to feed spring-calving cows next year. Many of these cows calve in February or March when not much is growing. That’s why it’s important to have high-quality hay stored for them.

“High-quality hay can meet their needs and help them produce adequate milk for their calves,” said Bates.

Another tricky aspect to hay cutting is trying to time the weather. It’s best to cut hay after a few dry days, and preferably with warm temperatures. But Bates says that’s not easy in the topsy-turvy spring that Tennessee usually sees. “It’s important to be ready to cut hay if we see at least three good days of weather,” he recommended.
Bates also recommends that producers get their hay-cutting equipment checked out now rather than wait until it’s almost time to go into the fields.

For more information, contact your local county UT Extension agent or visit the UT Beef and Forage Center website:

UT Extension provides a gateway to the University of Tennessee as the outreach unit of the UT Institute of Agriculture. With an office in every Tennessee county, UT Extension delivers educational programs and research-based information to citizens throughout the state. In cooperation with Tennessee State University, UT Extension works with farmers, families, youth and communities to improve lives by addressing problems and issues at the local, state and national levels.



Dr. Gary Bates, UT Beef and Forage Center, 865-974-7208,


Download article