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Hay Grower’s Meeting at Pitchfork Farms


By Leigh Ballard

Pitchfork Farms in Fayette County, TN was the host of the University of Tennessee Extension Service annual West Tennessee hay grower’s informational meeting. The meeting opened with David Skudder, owner of Pitchfork Farms, discussing the farm’s methods and mission.  This is the fourth year of hay production at Pitchfork Farms, and their goal is to produce high quality forage for the horse industry. Pitchfork produces square bales of Vaughn’s #1 Bermuda and Tiffany Teff.

Teff hay is a new product for Pitchfork, with 90 acres devoted to it. Skudder said that after a few trial and error attempts, the farm now has a production method that works well for Teff. The farm is able to produce at least three cuttings on the Teff fields.  Teff uses significantly less fertilizer than Bermuda, so is less expensive to produce. It is a “low sugar” hay, i.e., it has fewer carbohydrates than Bermuda. (High levels of carbohydrates can be a problem for some horses.) It dries quickly and bales nicely Skudder says, which also reduces the expense of production. Skudder feels that, over time, Teff will gain greater acceptance by consumers. It is excellent hay, but consumers are still relatively unfamiliar with it.

Skudder also discussed machinery which has helped make some efficiency changes at the farm. Pitchfork no longer uses hay accumulators. He said using them was “one comedy after another” with men getting on and off tractors too many times to deal with the machines.  A new machine, the Bale Baron, “revolutionized” Pitchfork’s operation. It picks up bales from the ground and makes a 21-bale cube. The Bale Baron works efficiently enough to keep up with two balers in the field.  The cubes allow the men to handle more hay, more easily, and in less time. The cubes are also easy to load when a customer picks up hay. For example, just before the meeting began, 700 bales were loaded on a truck for a customer in 27 minutes. Because Pitchfork is a large scale operation with a focus on working quickly with large numbers, good equipment is key to their success.  Skudder says their new equipment has allowed them to make more hay in less time, enabling them to expand the operation to 418 acres. Projections are for 100,000 bales this year.

Gary Bates, Professor of Plant Sciences at the University Of Tennessee, described the differences between two of our region’s warm season grasses: Bermuda grass and Teff grass. The first major difference is that Bermuda is a perennial grass, and Teff is an annual grass. Bermuda has an extremely long stand life if it is managed properly, whereas Teff must be replanted each year. However, Teff is an “immediate” hay; it grows like “wildfire” he said. Teff has extremely small seed, and seed depth is absolutely critical. Two to three cuttings can be expected from Teff, but it can’t be planted until about the first week of May when all danger of frost is past, because even a light frost will kill the seedlings. UT recommends using 8 lbs of seed per acre, and between 60 to 90 pounds of fertilizer. Bermuda needs 3 to 4 times the fertilizer that Teff needs. Since fertilizer drives most of the expense in forage production, Teff is attractive to producers.

Pitchfork gets about 75-80 bales per acre on their Teff fields. The Teff hay often dries in one day, whereas Bermuda can take 2-3 days. The protein levels of each hay are relatively the same. Mark Pretti, manager at Pitchfork, noted that it is very important to cut Teff before it goes to head. He recommends cutting it just as you see it starting to head. Also, Teff is extremely fine stemmed, so if it gets too tall, a strong wind or rain will cause it to lodge. Pretti said their Teff usually is cut at about 15 inches.Bates added that this is true of any hay; once it starts producing seed, the nutrient value of the hay decreases considerably. He explained that it’s not the grass species that influences protein content and nutrient value of hay, but rather the stage of harvest, so the grower has much more influence on a good hay crop than the type of grass.

Bates answered questions from the audience, which yielded more good information on the differences in Teff and Bermuda production. Then he demonstrated how to take a forage sample for nutrient analysis – a very simple and inexpensive process. A forage analysis is extremely helpful in balancing a ration for livestock while guessing isn’t accurate enough. Using an auger is the best way to take a sample, as other methods do not yield accurate results.  Augers used for taking samples are available at all county extension offices.

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