Question: I heard the best time to harvest horse quality timothy hay is in the bolt phase (right before heading). The farmer has been trying to sell me hay with timothy heads; the hay is very coarse and has few leaves. Is it worth waiting until second cutting hay?
Answer: Unlike many other cool-season grasses (i.e. orchardgrass, bluegrass, fescue), timothy sends up seed heads after each cutting. Most other grasses will only send up seed heads once in spring, and once cut will remain vegetative with no seed heads. For example, it's common for first crop orchardgrass to include seeds heads, while subsequent cuttings will not. So, it is rare to find timothy hay without seed heads. More mature grasses will be lower in quality since maturity at the time of cutting dictates forage quality.
If you are concerned about the quality and coarseness of the hay, select a mixed cool-season grass hay as most cool-season grasses will remain vegetative after first cutting.
However, to lessen the chance of weather (i.e. too much or not enough rain) affecting your ability to secure hay, it is generally recommend to purchase 50% of your hay needs during first cutting and 50% during second cutting; assuming your hay supplier is operating on a two-cut system. If your hay supplier is operating on a three-cut system, purchase a third of your hay needs from each crop.
First cutting will likely be more mature (because of rapid growth in the spring) and less calorically dense compared to subsequent cuttings; however, use that to your advantage. Feed first cutting hay to maintenance horses or ponies and keep the better quality, later cut hay for horses in an exercise program or ones with greater caloric needs (i.e. growing horses, broodmares).
A forage analysis will provide the nutrient content of the hay; however, make sure to request an equine forage analysis.
By: Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota