A season with weather, tariffs, and constantly changing markets, the need to become more efficient and diversified is key. In the West, specifically Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, timothy production is one means of doing this and is a major forage product that gets exported to countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Forage producers strive to grow the highest quality product while also making a profit on the crop they are growing. A timothy hay enterprise is no different. Growers must balance input costs with potential returns while dealing with wide swings in market prices and demand.
I sat down recently with the director of research from a local fertilizer supplier, and we began to discuss the complex nature of a timothy crop when striving to get the best quality. Two of the reoccurring themes during the discussion were about proper plant nutrition and timing.
Don’t skimp on nitrogen
The proper amount of nitrogen , phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) is paramount to growing a high-yielding crop. One tool that growers can use to help the plant remain productive and healthy is a nitrogen stabilizer. As with all grasses, nitrogen is an essential nutrient for timothy if optimum yields and quality are to be achieved. Nitrogen stabilizers extend the availability of nitrogen to the plant during peak growing stages.
All plants need nutrition during their entire growing process, but timothy hits its peak nutrient need when transitioning from vegetative growth to boot and heading stages. During this period, the plant demands a large majority of its needed nutrients. If these nutrients are not available in the soil, the plant pulls stored nutrients from its corm, which is a bulblike structure at the base of the stem and is the plant’s primary nutrient storage structure. When the plant has to rely on its corm for nutrition too early, it’s thought that this is a contributing factor to brown leaf (dead leaf) at the bottom of the plant.
The biggest detriment to forage quality for a timothy crop is brown leaf. Buyers generally grade timothy primarily on color as well as head and stem size, so brown leaves present a major marketing problem. As of now, there is no one specific cause of brown leaf that is known. The current thinking is that it could be the result of a fungus, lack of sunlight caused by overcrowding, unmet nutrient needs, herbicide damage, or a combination of all of these factors. There are some studies currently being conducted to document whether or not common timothy herbicides are causing injury to the plant and contributing to brown leaf.
Unlike alfalfa, timothy will exhibit plant health issues relatively quickly, sometimes even overnight. When scouting a timothy field, you can easily spot problem areas where fertilizer may have been under or over applied, there was an herbicide skip while spraying, or there was a fertilizer application miss.
A yield-quality trade-off
As with most forage crops, timothy also offers the age-old yield or quality trade-off dilemma. In the forage industry, we are paid on the basis of both tonnage and quality. Theoretically, you could go for high tonnage and decent quality and get paid the same as you would if you went for top quality with good tonnage. Often, the end market and your ability to cover input costs dictates the most profitable approach.
For our operation and many others, we strive to grow the best quality product that we can while being efficient with our nutrient program to get a healthy balance of quality and tonnage. There is a huge pride factor when customers keep coming back because the quality of your timothy crop is consistent from year-to-year.
There is no one right answer to get the best quality and tonnage out of a timothy crop. Every grower has to develop a production protocol that works best for their farm. Timothy, like many grasses, performs differently depending on the environment. There is no one-size-fits-all program. You can even run the exact same production program on two fields located right next to each other and achieve completely different end results. In the end, each timothy grower must experiment and find those production practices that result in the best product for their market.