Forage production is all about two things — quality and tonnage. There are a lot of details involved; farmers need acceptable quantity of forage at the quality required by their livestock. A great and relevant quote from Michigan State University-Extension’s forage specialist Kim Cassida is, “You can harvest high- or low-quality forage from any hayfield or pasture depending on harvest management.”

That idea reaches the heart of harvesting quality forage. The maturity stage of the plants to be harvested has an important impact on the resulting hay or pasture quality.

  • Earlier harvest or grazing results in greater protein and digestibility.
  • Later harvest or grazing results in less nutritional content of the feed but greater yield.

So yield per acre — tonnage — is also affected by harvest management. There are trade-offs between quality and yield.

The type and quality of forage needed on any farm depends on the type of livestock being fed, or the demands of the market for forages harvested for sale. Dairy farms need better-quality forages than most other livestock farms. Within each farm various groups of cattle will require different quality of forage.

  • High-producing lactating cattle require excellent-quality forage.
  • Dairy heifers and dry cows require less-nutritious feed as compared to lactating cows.
  • Dry and “steam-up” cows are often fed lesser-potassium forage to avoid metabolic problems.

Most beginners aren’t managing dairy herds. They are more interested in hay and pasture suitable for beef cattle, horses, sheep and goats, and even swine and poultry. Producing better-quality dairy forage may present serious difficulties for an inexperienced farmer.

Stored forage may consist of dry hay in the form of small square bales, or large round or square bales at 14 percent to 18 percent moisture, which will be less for larger bales. Forage may also be ensiled as haylage at about 60 percent to 65 percent moisture by piling in a bunker and compacting to remove as much oxygen as possible, then covering with an airtight liner. Haylage may also be stored in agricultural bags, a more flexible system for smaller farms requiring specialized equipment.

Baleage is made with large bales, usually drier than haylage at about 40 percent to 55 percent moisture. The hay is formed into large round or square bales after partial wilting in the field. They are then wrapped either individually or in rows with airtight plastic. The hay is preserved well as long as the plastic wrap remains intact. Baleage also requires some special equipment. It works well on small farms where better-quality hay is desired, fields are small and adequate drying time in the field for dry hay is a problem.

For beef cattle, horses and other species, a mixture of grass and legume is often the desired crop. If the percent of legumes — such as clovers, alfalfa or birdsfoot trefoil — is about 35 percent to 40 percent, enough nitrogen should be captured by the legumes and cycled through the soil to provide for the grasses that cannot produce their own nitrogen. Including legumes in grassy hay and pasture will also increase the protein content of the resulting forage. But annual removal of forages without replacing potassium, phosphorus and other nutrients will result in depleted soils. They will be incapable of maintaining acceptable forage stands and yields. In those instances weeds tend to take over and crowd out the desirable grasses and legumes.

Forage testing is available through various dependable private companies to provide information on the protein, energy and other nutrient content of stored forage and other feeds. Visit for more information.

James Isleib is a crop-production educator at Michigan State University-Extension.