1st, 2nd or 3rd cuttings in hay… what does that really mean?

With hay prices in California being $25 a bale (YIKES!) I have to purchase my hay twice a month.  Oh Goody.

Anyway, I previously was able to buy in bulk and therefore I could go directly to a trusted grower, look at his fields and know his quality and also know that he would harvest keenly, and I never had to worry about the quality of the hay.

Now, I do.

Now I have to go to the local feed store and buy not in bulk.  I arrive at the feed store and look up at the huge white board that has all the different forages available that day, the weight per bale and the ‘cutting’.


Why would the ‘cutting’ matter?

Previously, all of the year’s worth of hay I received from my grower looked/felt/smelled/fed exactly the same.  Did I simply buy all of one ‘cutting’?  If so, which cutting was it?  What is a ‘cutting’? Don’t farmers grow crops in a consistent manner so that the ‘cutting’ wouldn’t matter?  Don’t they use rules to harvest – no matter the season?

This ‘cutting’ concept didn’t make any sense.  After all, we don’t buy corn per ‘cutting’.  Or lettuce, or wheat or any other grain crop (which they are all grown in long seasons).

And, to confuse me even more, all of my orchard hay has been different, each delivery.  Every single time I have had “orchard grass” hay delivered from the local feed store – it is completely different from the last delivery in weight, shape, color, leaves, stems….

Clearly, I am receiving hay from different growers who have different harvesting styles.

So, I don’t think it is the ‘cutting’… I think it is the grower and his system.

Hmmmm.  I wished to test my theory.

I wish I could get my hay from one grower again...

I wish I could get my hay from one grower again…


Well, I think my general farming thought is correct.  Forage should be farmed consistently, no matter what the season/time of year or cutting.    Hay is just like any other crop…  there are rules and methods… and many different farmers.

Here is information that I gleaned through my search:


Click to go to site

Click to go to site


Cherry Hill is known for her horsekeeping.  Here is what she had to say (linked here):

Hay Cuttings
     Horsemen are very opinionated on which cutting is the best to buy.  Although there are some differences in the cuttings, the quality of the hay is much more important than the cutting.  From a nutritional standpoint, all cuttings can result in prime horse hay.  With alfalfa, there will be some variation in protein content between cuttings.  First cut alfalfa hay has the reputation of having large tough stems, but this is only true if the hay was too mature when cut.  If first cut hay is mowed at the pre-bloom stage, the stems will not be coarse and the nutritive value will be high.  Weeds do tend to appear in first-cut hay.

     Second cut alfalfa hay is usually the fastest growing because it is developing during the hottest part of the season, and it usually has more stem in relation to leaf.  Of all cuttings, second cut tends to be the lowest in crude protein, but its 16 percent average is adequate for all classes of horses.

     Third (and later) cut alfalfa, develops a higher leaf to stem ratio because of the slower growth during the cool part of the season.  Therefore, third cut hay will usually have the highest nutritive value.  Horses which are not accustomed to a good, leafy hay may experience flatulent (gaseous) colic or a loose stool.

     Mixed hays from all cuttings will have similar nutritional values except that with a grass/alfalfa mix, the first cutting will contain a larger proportion of grasses than the other cuttings.

     Most hay today is mowed, conditioned (stems crimped so they will dry faster), and put in a windrow all in one operation.  This results in less manipulation of the hay and less leaf breakage and loss.  The hay dries in the windrow until the moisture is out of the stem.  The level of dryness can be determined by twisting a handful of the hay.  If the stems pop as they break the moisture content is about right for baling.  Scraping the green covering off a stem will also reveal if the stem is still wet.

     Raking or turning the hay in the windrow rolls the hay from the bottom of the pile to the top.  This may be necessary in humid climates, for hay that has been rained on, or with a field that had an unusually dense stand so is laying in heavy windrows.  Raking will facilitate further drying but may contribute to leaf loss.  It is essential that raking be done when the hay has adequate moisture, such as with an early dew, which will prevent leaf shatter and loss.

     Bale size is dictated, for the most part, by the bale wagon being used, with the currently popular wagon requiring a 40 inch long bale which weighs approximately 65 to 70 pounds.  The tightness of the bale can be adjusted.  Tight bales handle well, stack well, and shed weather better.  A too-dry bale must be baled tight in order to retain its leaves but too-wet hay that is baled tight will result in heating and molding.

     Once the hay in the windrow is determined to be at the appropriate moisture level, the hay should be baled with the aid of the morning dew to help hold the leaves on the stems.  This may require the hay grower to get up at 3 AM and bale for the few hours when baling is optimum.  Baling throughout the heat of the day simply does not result in good quality hay in most situations.

     Bales are generally left in the field for a few days to cure or sweat, particularly if there was adequate dew on the hay during baling.  Often the need to irrigate the next cutting requires that the bales be gathered.  Stacking today is generally done with bale wagons which result in tight, stable stacks with staggered joints.  A tall stack results in fewer top and bottom bales which are the ones commonly lost to weathering and ground moisture.  Side bales generally do not get drenched during a rain so dry out adequately.  The middle bales are protected.

     If the bales contain too much moisture, they can ferment and create heat.  The heat can be great enough to result in spontaneous combustion causing a stack to catch fire.  The internal temperature of a bale can be checked by simply cutting the strings and passing the hand between some flakes.  Any warmth should be noted as heat makes undesirable changes in the carbohydrates in the hay.

     Since the nutritive quality of hay can vary so greatly, it is best to test hay before a large purchase, especially if it is to be used for young or lactating horses.  Your extension agent will instruct you on sampling techniques and the test results will reveal crude protein, fiber, energy, and mineral content. 




A wise student of agriculture posted this sweet and to the point missive:

the scoop is….

there are 10,000 variables between “cuttings” that cannot be figured into the modern world

in the old days we had first cutting…sometime in may(ish) and another sometime after the summer broke and before winter started

the common logic was that the fields grew from the end of second til the start of first and being “aged” in the fields had more stem,more fiber,less yummies and so on….

the “second” cutting was then a much “younger” crop growing only a few mos (4 was best) and then being suppressed by summer for part of the time so maybe you only had 60 days of active growth…younger was fresher and less fibrous and greener and higher in protein…

but if a farmer burns off the winter stubble in early spring, then the “first” cutting is only that same 60 days old and has the same characteristics of a young crop …likewise if a farmer refuses to do anything for summer weeds the “second” cutting while younger is riddled with garbage

and if we start talking about multi cuttings things get even more complex…but mainly you are look at the age between mowing down and cutting another time...and not where the hay falls in the sequence of cuttings…esp since farmers across the nation can send hay anywhere the freight will pay…

so as they say on the Rec “It depends”





‘TIME OF DAY’ OF CUT MATTERS  (linked here)

“Time of day in cutting can also make a difference in quality of hay. Hay cut in the late afternoon has higher nutrient content than hay cut in the morning. The plants accumulate sugars and starches during the day, through photosynthesis, and then use up these nutrients at night as they grow, he explains. Thus for highest nutrient values, select hay cut in late afternoon, but for an idle horse, morning cut hay might be just right. A horse that is prone to insulin resistance problems or laminitis would do best with hay cut in the early morning when the plants are lowest in sugars and starches.”

(So test your hay for WSC plus starch for IR or Cushings horses.)

Looks great...

Looks great… but the stacks aren’t perfectly aligned.  My OCD is kicking in here…


It doesn’t really matter what ‘cutting’ you purchase.  What matters is the ability and sense of the farmer.

So, go look at the hay you are buying.  Make your best judgement.  And, if you are like me and have sensitive horses (Cushings/IR) or athletes, get it tested.

Dairy One makes it very easy to test hay.  I do it all the time.  Here is the link.

And, supplement your forage when needed.  There are so many diverse, quality feeds out there… just make sure you aren’t buying filler or fast food for horses.  ;)

This is a shot from the Dairy One website - they test hay easily and accurately.

This is a shot from the Dairy One website – they test hay easily and accurately.


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8 comments have been posted...

  1. Francis Halle

    Thank you. That was so very well explained…..and I am an older farm boy.

  2. dawndi Post author

    Agreed. We all are upset when we get a bale of moldy hay. You are correct about the area of harvest and protocols.

  3. Mary

    While today’s info about hay was pretty informative, I believe that most of the comments about cutting and bailing were from folks who live and farm in a more arid region. Here in New England, we wait til after the morning dew has dried off before bailing. Otherwise the wet hay will mold or worse. And we don’t leave hay bales in the field to ‘cure’ or sweat. They will start to reabsorbe the dew moisture and the moisture from the ground. We able and stack the wagons at the same time. So things are different in different areas of the country!

  4. Alexis Madison

    Thanks for this — and please keep in mind that different areas of the company have different terms for what should be standardized. AND the reason people now are having to rely on feed store hay (and alfalfa) on the west coast is that mega corporations with a short-term profit business model have convinced farmers who formerly grew hay to grow hemp instead. The current fashion for cbd products (as well as that other stuff which believe it or not most of us want nothing to do with) will wane once overproduced and the bottom has fallen out of the hemp marketplace. Based on past history of the corn for ethanol phase and before that the poplars for papermills craze (and now the plant-hazelnuts-everywhere looming debacle) I think it will last about five years. My own deepest regret is that I am no longer able to have a large enough acreage to grow my own hay – nothing quite like turning every bale after harvest to determine every single bale’s quality. Finally: beware of some feed stores’ false claims that they are selling hay for horses when the actual product is leavings from grass seed production fields. You do not want to feed any animal – no, not even cows or goats – the chemicals that are in those leavings.

  5. Dawn Stephens

    Excellent information and descriptions. I grew up being told 2nd cutting was the best. Less trash and smaller stems, but now I see that’s not necessarily the case. Thanks, Dawn, for helping the horses in need as well as the owners. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog for several years and have been both entertained and educated.

    Thanks for all you do!

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