Harvesting Timothy Hay for Export

Careful harvest management can double the value of timothy hay. Producers should consider reconditioning timothy hay and pay special attention to moisture levels when baling.

Buyers of top quality timothy hay rely heavily on visual appearance and other subjective aspects when pricing hay. It is important to be aware of these quality factors when harvesting. Requirements for premium hay include celery green colour, long coarse stems, long heads, no brown leaves, no weeds, mold or soil, agropyron (Hessian fly host) free, and dryness (less than 12% moisture).

Hay which is dry and contains some green colour is still exportable, however the price is reduced substantially.

Harvesting Tips

The real magic of harvest comes with ones ability to predict the weather. Items to consider during harvest;

  • The ideal time to cut is just before bloom (when the emerged head is covered with "velvet"). At that time plant dry down will be the quickest, and quality and yield will be maximized.
  • Most producers will cut any time after complete heading if there is a good weather window. Use a weather forecasting service and cut around the weather.
  • Lay swaths for maximum drying; making use of winds and the lay of the land. High, narrow swaths maximize wind use and minimize bleaching. An initial wide swath with subsequent raking to a narrow, tall swath is also practiced depending on conditions.
  • Cutting height should be set to cut above "dead bottom". A producer can eliminate many brown leaves if cutting height is raised accordingly.
  • Check crimped stems and set crimper for the maximum number of crimps possible. Unlike legumes, grasses lose few leaves even with aggressive crimping.
  • Swath turning, tedding, raking or reconditioning should all be considered to speed up drying.


A popular management technique used in Alberta to speed up the drying process of timothy hay is the use of reconditioners. The machine most commonly used is a NH 411 disc bine. The 411 is popular because it is very easy to convert into a reconditioner. It also has a wide conditioner with the right kind of rolls, adjustable swath fanning deflectors for rebuilding the perfect swath, and a hydraulic swing hitch and lift for easy transport.

Conversion simply means removing the disc cutter head, adding some counter weight to the right side, and installing a CV universal joint in the drive line at the gear box. The CV joint allows the operator to run with the hitch in a narrower position. Skid shoes are also needed to prevent the rolls from digging into the ground. The machine can be operated at speeds as high as 6-8 mph.

Older pull behind conditioners have also been used, however, they are not as aggressive and they require one to straddle and sometimes pack the swath. Also, operating speed would be considerably less with older conditioning machines.

Most producers using reconditioners use them on the day they expect to bale, as soon as the dew is off. The dry down from fresh-cut to about 20% is easy and quick. It's that last few percentage points that seem to be the slowest. This is also a time when the most damage can be done as a result of a rain. Reconditioning splits the stems and refluffs the swath resulting in rapid dry down. It works well in facilitating the removal of the last 5% moisture. Producers claim that it shakes out some of the brown leaves and, in general, the processors say it improves the compressibility of the hay when processed. It is generally believed that re-conditioning will reduce dry down time by one day. Losses on pure grass stands are minimal. On mixed stands of legume-grass or straight legume leaf loss would be a major concern.


Hay must be 12% moisture or less before it can be processed for export. Most producers will use a combination of the twist test and a moisture meter to determine if the hay is dry. Use of a microwave is a good method to determine exact moisture. Details on the use of a microwave for moisture testing are included.

On hot days moisture meters can be very inaccurate. Moisture readings on hay known to contain 22% moisture have been as low as 10-12% on very hot days. Curing of hay is a reference to the internal stem moisture. Hay can seem dry on the outside and test dry with the use of a meter. However, if the moisture that is remaining in they hay is contained within the stem, spoilage problems can arise.

After the initial heating and drying period, hay is relatively stable. Moisture readings in a freshly baled stack will increase by 2-3% during what is called a "sweat" period. This can last for up to 3 weeks after harvest and varies depending on original moisture and the density of the bales. There is some respiration and microbial action even in a dry stable hay. Dry matter losses of 0.5% per month have been recorded on dry hay during storage.

Using the Microwave Oven for Determining the Moisture Content of Forages

Knowing the moisture content of the forage when haying is critical. One way to test your hay for moisture uses an appliance found in most farm kitchens - THE MICROWAVE OVEN.

In addition to the microwave oven, a person needs:

  • a kitchen scale (or scale that can accurately weigh a 100 gram sample)
  • scissors
  • a paper bag or plate
  • a small glass of water
  • notepad
  • a calculator (optional)


  1. Take a representative sample of forage from your hay swaths and cut into 1/4" to 1/2" pieces.
  2. Mix your sample and weigh out approximately 100 grams (wet weight) excluding the weight of the container. Record the weight (wet weight).
  3. Put the sample in the paper bag or spread thinly on the paper plate in the microwave. Also place a glass of water in the microwave to prevent the sample from catching fire.
  4. Turn the microwave on high for 3-4 minutes.
  5. Reweigh the sample and record its weight. Stir the sample to remove hot spots.
  6. Place the sample back in the microwave and reheat at 1-2 minute intervals. Record the weight, and stir the sample again.
  7. Repeat Step 6 until the sample looses less than 1 gram between heatings. When this occurs it will be dry (dry weight). A slightly charred sample should not affect the accuracy of the moisture determination, but if the sample burns, the test should be repeated.

When the sample is dry the moisture content is calculated as follows:

(wet weight) - (dry weight) x 100 = moisture content
wet weight

For example:

100 grams - 86 grams x 100 = 14% moisture
100 grams

This method is quick, simple and accurate. While drying the sample, always watch to ensure it doesn't burn.