In addition to the suppression of weeds, close cutting with a mowing machine, not later than the third week in September, or about a month after the nurse crop is harvested, stimulates the branching and stooling out of the clovers and grasses, thus insuring a thicker stand and a more uniform growth the following spring. By removing the nurse crop stubble and the autumn weed growth, a cleaner and better quality of hay is secured from the first cutting. It is important, however, that this be done in plenty of time to insure a good top growth for winter protection. The last cut of Alfalfa should be made not later than the third week in August. After such autumn cutting the young meadow should not be pastured. Early the following spring, if the land is sufficiently well drained, the use of a heavy roller is often beneficial.
On the dryer prairie soils, where a nurse crop may not be used, two or three cuttings with a mowing machine will suppress the weeds and conserve the moisture, but the crop should not be cut after the middle of August.
The lack of winter protection for young meadows is the most common cause of reduced yields and inferior quality of hay. During dry seasons, when natural pastures and fodder crops are short, the use of newly seeded meadows immediately the nurse crop is removed sometimes seems unavoidable, even when the seedling plants are struggling for existence and much reduced in vigour by their competition with a nurse crop that has robbed them of moisture rather than protected them. It is under just such conditions that pasturing is most disastrous. For every pound of forage taken from the young plants more than ten pounds are lost in the hay crop; the stand will be thinner and the quality of the hay poorer. The young plants should completely hide the ground and show a growth of six inches or more before the autumn season is past. Only when there is danger of smothering the crop from a rank growth of clover, which rarely occurs, is there any advantage in pasturing a young meadow the first year.
Grasses and other fodder plants should be cut when the crop has reached its maximum value, in yield and quality, for cured hay; the effect on the aftermath or succeeding crops should also be considered. The main natural function of the plant is to reproduce itself. Until its seed-bearing organs have been fertilized, it collects nutriment and stores it up in its tissues for the development and maturing of seeds. As soon as the flower is fertilized, the seed draws on the store of nourishment in the stems and leaves and the plant begins to harden. With some kinds of fodder plants, such as Blue-joint Grass, that depend largely on their roots for reproduction and bear few seeds, the hardening of the plant is less pronounced; but in nearly all the most valuable kinds the change from succulent and pliable tissues to brittle and woody stems and leaves is rapid and marked. Even before fertilization, many of the fodder plants, such as Alfalfa, Western Rye Grass and Timothy, commence to harden.
If cut before the flowers are ripe for fertilization, the plant will renew its efforts to reproduce itself, and the aftermath or second crop will consequently be greater. When cutting is delayed until seeds have started to develop, the natural tendency of Red Clover and other biennial fodder plants is to die down; with Timothy and other grasses the effect is apparent not only in the aftermath but also in the crop of the succeeding year. In wild nature the next year's crop would consist in part of young plants from seed which, under agricultural conditions, is frequently allowed to form but not to mature and drop.
From the standpoint of the quality of the hay, nothing is gained and much may be lost by deferring cutting until the bloom is well advanced. The yield per acre is slightly increased during the few days between early and late flowering, but that small increase is obtained at the expense of a marked depreciation in quality; and if the aftermath or succeeding crops are taken into account, the total yield is actually reduced.
When fodder crops that reach the early flowering stage at different times are sown together, as Early Red Clover and Timothy, the best time for the first cutting depends on the proportion of each. It will usually be found advisable, and in the end most economical, to cut when the early maturing clover is not more than two or three days past its best condition for hay-making. In dry, hot weather fodder crops ripen quickly, and a few days' delay may then do as much damage as a much longer period would in cool weather with a moist soil.
For hay, cutting is best done by machine mowers. The harvesting of grass seed is commonly done with self-binders, the sheaves being stood together in small shocks to cure and ripen the seed.
Close cutting for hay is recommended. When the fodder crop consists largely of clovers and is heavy and lodged in patches, the cutter bar should be so adjusted as to get below the stalks, else the remaining stubble will be dangerous to the machinery in tedding and raking and will leave a worthless roughage to be collected with the next hay crop. The advantage of a smooth surface, produced by the use of the weeder following the grain drill and by spring rolling across the furrows, is best appreciated when a heavy and badly lodged crop of clover is to be cut.
It is usually convenient to cut during that part of the day when the dew prevents the work of making and hauling. When, however, the clover crop is heavy and liable to collect on the divider when wet with dew, late afternoon cutting is desirable. Tedding or turning the green fodder should commence soon after it is cut. If the crop is heavy, tedding should be continued at intervals until the fodder is sufficiently cured to rake into coils and stack into small cocks. If at all possible, this should be done the day it is cut, or, if cut in the afternoon, the day after. Green fodder, when cut at the best stage for hay-making, usually contains about eighty per cent. of moisture. In good weather even a heavy crop of clover may be dried sufficiently in one day to be ready to put up in small cocks for further curing. The moisture in hay ready to store commonly ranges from twelve to fifteen per cent. A larger percentage would conduce to sweating and mow-burning. It is a good plan to cut until nine o'clock in the morning and then have one person ted and rake for the balance of the day; hauling and storing should proceed from nine o'clock until four or four-thirty in the afternoon, the remaining two hours or less to be devoted to putting up the freshly cured hay into cocks. Plans for hay-making are, however, often interrupted by showers, which add to the labour of curing and are often more disastrous to the quality of the hay than extreme dry heat.