Tricks of the Hay Trade

Increasing hay yields in high mountain meadows

It takes a whole bag of tricks to raise a good hay crop in Colorado's mountain meadows. The growing season is short. Soils are shallow, often boggy. Noxious weeds, erosion, economics, and management practices add to the challenge.

That's where Joe Brummer, research scientist at the Mountain Meadow Research Center in Gunnison, comes in. He tinkers with old tricks to see if he can improve them. And he has some new tricks up his sleeve, too.

One popular old trick turned out to be a dud when Brummer took a close look at it. Many mountain hay meadows have developed a thick layer of peat, a sort of built-in compost pile. The peat is rich in nitrogen, but not in a form plants can use. In theory, aerating this peat layer should stimulate soil microbes to break down the nitrogen, like turning a compost pile. In practice, Brummer's research showed that this actually reduced hay production instead of stimulating it.

Meadow foxtail, introduced some time ago, is well adapted to our mountain meadows. A prolific seed producer, it has spread throughout Colorado's mountain valleys. With nitrogen fertilization, producers can get good yields. But as a livestock feed crop, meadow foxtail's nutritional value leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunately, additional fertilizer doesn't solve this problem.

One way to improve feed quality is to introduce legumes into the meadow. Not only do legumes improve the hay's feed value, their nitrogen-fixing ability reduces or eliminates the need for nitrogen fertilizer. This both saves money and reduces the risk of nitrogen runoff or groundwater contamination.

"The hard part about interseeding is getting the plants established," says Brummer. "Seeding alone doesn't work. The existing grasses shade the new plants and they can't get a good start." Traditional practice has been to spray Roundup to completely suppress the grass. The new species is then seeded and can establish itself for a year before the grasses recover from the Roundup. But the rancher forfeits an entire year's hay crop and has to buy hay to replace it. Another option is to completely renovate the meadow – plow the whole thing up and reseed it from scratch. This is an expensive undertaking, and the rancher still loses one or more hay crops.

Brummer tried several tricks to improve the success rate of interseeding. Instead of spraying a whole meadow, he sprayed bands within it, then seeded those bands. The legumes could establish themselves within those bands, and the rancher could harvest hay as usual on the uncontrolled areas.

Like most things in life, there is a trade-off. Strip interseeding gave only about half as good a stand of new legumes as spraying the whole meadow. On the plus side, though, ranchers harvested at least a partial hay crop from the uncontrolled strips.

Another Brummer trick is birdsfoot trefoil. This legume, widely grown in the northeastern United States, adapts well to Colorado's wet mountain meadows but hasn't been widely grown here. Test plots showed improved protein and digestibility over both alfalfa and clover, the two legumes most commonly used in Colorado.

Brummer has found his tricks in some unusual places. While searching for information on applicators to apply herbicides in bands, he found a Web page from a farmer in Tasmania, an island off Australia. The farmer had developed pads for wiping herbicides on plants instead of spraying. The technique sounded like just what Brummer was looking for. He tried them last year with good results. More tests are in the works.

"Every ranch is unique," says Brummer. "Unique in the physical sense, of course, but also in the rancher's financial and management goals. So no one answer will work for everybody." That's why he needs a whole bag full of tricks.