Fertility and Nutrients
Ten tips for top timothy
By Helen McMenamin
Timothy for export needs careful management to bring good returns.
By Helen McMenamin
Clean fields, and adequate nutrients and moisture can produce a high yielding, top quality timothy crop. Quick harvest and storage out of the elements provide processors with product they can sell into the lucrative, but demanding oriental markets.
In a good year, timothy returns can beat almost any other crop and be much better than those from mixed hay. But, timothy needs unrelenting attention to detail to produce the high quality hay demanded by the export market.
Ross McKenzie, crop nutrition specialist with Alberta Agriculture, is working on a major study of timothy agronomy. Here are his tips for yield and quality:
Seed into a clean field
“It’s impossible to over-emphasize the importance of starting with a clean field,” says McKenzie. “There’s no tolerance for volunteer cereal or quackgrass. Japan has strict phyto-sanitary measures against these hosts for the hessian fly and soil that can harbour the larvae.”
Timothy needs about 10 pounds of phosphate per ton of hay. Adequate phosphorus helps extend the life of the stand. McKenzie advises banding enough 11-51 for five years, at 10 pounds P2O5 per ton of hay, that is 150 to 200 pounds per acre. For soils that tie up phosphorus, an annual application is advised, but pre-crop banding has worked well for Alberta growers.
“Check your soil test results before you apply high rates of phosphorus,” says McKenzie. “Some well-fertilized fields have more than enough phosphate, especially if they’ve been manured. And, if you must put manure on a timothy field, do it before seeding.”
Check soil sulphur
Sulphur is rarely needed under irrigation because mountain water contains sulphates. On dryland, sulphur may limit yields, especially for a heavy user like timothy. Plants low in sulphur can look nitrogen deficient, with disappointing growth. Sulphur may be distributed unevenly in a field, with patches of adequate levels beside areas with very low sulphur.
McKenzie advises broadcasting sulphur. Use a sulphate fertilizer, ammonium sulphate (21-0-0-24), to provide sulphur for the next growing season. Elemental sulphur needs to be oxidized by soil microbes to be available to a crop and that takes at least a year.
McKenzie recommends seeding after taking off a cereal crop, such as barley, early for silage or greenfeed. He does not advise cultivating. “A forage harvest leaves very little residue to hinder the emergence of grass seedlings. You have a nice firm seedbed and you don’t lose a year of production while the crop establishes.
“The less disturbance, the better,” McKenzie says. “Band in your phosphate fertilizer with very narrow openers, preferably a disk drill. Irrigate to around field capacity or, if you’re seeding dryland, hope for some rain, then do a pre-seed burnoff and seed.”
“Be sure to just scratch the seed into the ground – just barely cover the seed,” says McKenzie. “We cross-seeded our research plots at 2.5lb/ac in each direction with a no-till disk drill and we’re very pleased with the results.
“Banding and seeding timothy with disk openers helps establish the crop. It saves money in the long-run and leaves you with a level field to hay. A hoe leaves huge furrows.”
Apply nitrogen in spring
McKenzie does not advise adding nitrogen fertilizer to banded phosphate for timothy. “A high rate of phosphate fertilizer applied before seeding provides enough nitrogen for the crop to establish,” he says. “Once the crop is in production, apply N in spring. Generally, grass responds better to spring-applied N.
“Broadcast it as early as you can, so the crop is ready to grow as soon as the season gets going. Apply N again after the first cut if you plan to take a second cut. If the weather is cool and damp, urea, 46-0-0, works well, but, if it’s warm and dry, with soil temperatures above five degrees C, ammonium nitrate, 34-0-0, is a more effective fertilizer.
“We’ve tested some coated urea products. They look promising as a way to apply urea in fall without losing nutrients through volatilization. They may even provide N for a second cut.”
Use test strips
Potassium and micronutrients can be depleted by high yields of high quality forages, especially on sandy soils. If soil tests indicate marginal levels of these nutrients, use fertilizer test strips to see whether the crop benefits from the extra nutrients. McKenzie often advises a second opinion when farmers get a recommendation for micronutrients. Put in at least two well-separated strips, each the full length of the field to allow for land variation.
Weeds downgrade export hay drastically, and control options are limited. Monitor closely for weeds and check provincial weed control guides for registered control options. Wheatgrasses and cereals can disqualify hay from export markets.
Frequent light irrigation is best. Information from the Canadian Hay Association shows that established timothy can use 1.5 to two inches of water per week. Timothy plants tend to have shallow root systems with the majority of the roots in the top 10 to 12 inches and the bulk of the root mass in the top 24 inches (60cm) of the soil profile. It is important to regularly monitor this portion of the soil profile. A recent water use study in southern Alberta shows timothy used water from the zero to 2.5 foot zone (zero to 75cm) and very little from any greater depth.
Export hay must be under 12 percent moisture, but anything that shortens the time between cutting and shedding lowers the risk of losing quality in wet weather. Hay cut just before it blooms cures faster, but weather forecasts are more important than plant stage.