Friday, September 4, 2015

Baling Sorghum-sudangrass Hay

Looking east across a field of sorghum-sudangrass
There's nothing really exciting about baling some sorghum-sudangrass hay, but for some reason it seems like there are a lot of visits to the blog looking at the sorghum-sudangrass stuff, so for what its worth I thought I'd write about the sorghum-sudangrass I grew this summer. 

I planted about 36 acres of sorghum-sudangrass back on June 24, but instead of grazing it after it winter-killed like I did last year, I decided to bale it this summer.  One of the main reasons for baling hay instead of grazing it this winter is that I'm planning on planting grain sorghum next spring and I don't want to take the risk of ending up with a bunch of volunteer sorghum-sudnagrass in my grain sorghum field like I had this year.  Depending on how much rain we get, the sorghum-sudangrass should easily regrow to about 18-24 inches tall in the next few weeks or so, then I'll graze it off with the cattle and plant some wheat as a cover crop (at a much lower rate than I'd normally plant).  I'm thinking about planting a simple mix of wheat and turnips to feed the worms, cattle, and deer, but I don't know if that will happen until it happens.    

This summer, I planted a photoperiod-sensitive type of sorghum-sudangrass which means it won't start heading until the days get shorter than 12.5 hours in length. Because of that trait, it is supposed to make a higher quality hay because the maturity is delayed until sometime in September, which means it produces more leaves for a longer period of time instead of producing a head and getting more stemmy.  All of that also means that the seed costs more, and at this point, I'm a little undecided about if it grew any differently than "ordinary" sorghum-sudangrass would have grown and if the extra seed cost was worth it, although I'm leaning awful hard in the direction that ordinary, cheaper sorghum-sudangrass would work just as well for the way I grow and manage it.

From what I've seen,  photoperiod-sensitive sorghum-sudangrass would be better suited to a situation where it was being planted in late-April and was going to be cut for hay multiple times over the summer.   If you're going to double crop it after wheat or are planning to graze it in the summer, the ordinary, hopefully cheaper varieties of sorghum-sudangrass might be the better choice.
It's almost hard to see where you're driving in a field of 5-6 foot tall grass

The cropland around here is all terraced, so I usually try to break the fields up when I cut them for hay so that I'm not driving up and down the terraces on the ends as much (which probably doesn't make any sense at all to someone that doesn't know what I'm talking about).  In other words, instead of cutting one big square, I like to divide it up into two or more long rectangles.  All of that means that I have to dive into the middle of the field on that first pass across the field and almost drive blind while trying to follow a terrace. This year, I only had to deal with grass about 5-6 ft. tall, but I've cut some that was 8 ft. tall where I almost ran through the fence on the end when I didn't turn soon enough, it felt like driving in thick fog and almost going off of a cliff. So, if you plant some sorghum-sudangrass, don't wait too long to cut it, and I wouldn't plant it if you have a bunch of hidden obstacles in your field.

Besides that, baling sorghum-sudangrass is about the same as any other grass hay except that it's a little trickier getting it dry enough to bale while also trying to make sure it doesn't get too dry.  If anyone is thinking about baling sorghum-sudangrass, it's pretty important to cut it with something like a disc mower conditioner which crimps the stem so that it will dry down quick enough.  Even though I use a disc mower, most of the time it'll take at least an extra day or so for it to be dry enough to bale. 
Every time I've baled sorghum-sudangrass, the bales seem to come out much heavier and tighter than my other grass hay bales.  I've never weighed any bales, but I'd guess that my sorghum-sudangrass bales are at least 10-20% heavier, so there's even more hay out there than you'd think there was at first glance.

My bales also always seem to have a "shaggy" look to them when they are first baled, it always makes me get off of the tractor to double-check those first bales since it looks like the bales aren't being tied right or are loose, but I think it's just the nature of the grass and after the bales have set for a while they start to lose that "shaggy" look.  A net-wrapped bale wouldn't have that temporary shagginess, but since my baler gives me twine-wrapped bales, the shagginess doesn't bother me at all (besides that, I'm not a big fan of net-wrapped bales).  

That's about all I know about sorghum-sudangrass hay.  It grows quick, needs a little nitrogen but not too much, it can sometimes be difficult to get dry, it makes heavy bales, and my cattle seem to attack any bales of it that I feed them (there's almost no waste and they practically lick the ground clean to get every last bit of hay).    


  1. My father's farm has lots and lots of terraces so I can understand what you mean though we never bailed anything nearly that tall so for that part I just have to imagine.

    I also share your dislike for net wrapped bales.

    1. Before switching to no-till, I would have almost had to cut and bale each terrace separately to avoid hanging up on the tops of the terraces whenever I crossed them at an angle. But the combination of no-till (mainly due to the drill more than the planter), better water infiltration, and baling hay (I think the raking does something to help level everything) seems to have smoothed out the fields enough that I can easily run the mower up and down the terraces at different angles without hanging up anymore.

      It's another one of those things that's hard to describe to someone unless they've watched a field slowly change over the years.

      Most of my experience with net-wrapped bales is from when I first started with the cattle and had someone else bale some hay. I didn't like the way I could easily rip the mesh off of the bottom of the bale if I happened to catch something whenever I was moving a bale, to take the mesh off I had to have the bale off the ground or tipped over on it's side, it was impossible to get the mesh completely off if it was covered in ice, and it seemed like the mesh would start to rot away on the bottom of older stored bales.

      With my twine-wrapped bales, I can go out and set out a couple of days worth of bales without getting off of the tractor, then I can easily pull the twine off if it's sunny or if it's in the middle of an ice storm. I can store bales for more than a year without the twine rotting away, and if I'm not paying attention and drag a bale on the ground, it might only break a few wraps of twine instead of the entire bottom of the bale.

      If you really want to be entertained, go to one of the cattle forums and look for posts about "twine vs. mesh". Most of those posts turn into long arguments and usually escalate to the point that you'd think that someone had insulted the virtue of the other guy's mother.

    2. We never had any cattle so all our hay was sold. We used to do it ourselves back in the day when we had a small square baler and lots of labor but when the labor started getting other jobs, we switched to hiring all the hay baled for us in return for half the bales. One year the guy baling did the mesh and it was like you said, getting snagged at the littlest thing and causing a big mess. With the twine, we never had any problems. Fortunately, I was never on the unwrapping end of the equation except with small square bales of straw used for bedding sows out in the gestation barn.

      I believe you on the cattle forums. It seems like any forum discussion these days turns south at the drop of a hat. I think anonymity brings out the worst in forums. But if you are willing to bite your tongue and turn the other cheek, there is a lot of good information to be had in the forums, at least the couple that I have participated in over the years.