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Time of day of harvest and impact on nitrate concentration

Glenn Selk Published on 05 July 2012

Summer annuals are often used by cattle producers for summer grazing or harvested for hay. Plants such as Sorghum-Sudan hybrids, Sorgo-Sudan hybrids, Sudan-Sudan hybrids and millets all fall in this category.

These summer crops can be very productive and high quality but can also accumulate toxic levels of nitrate when stressed. The heat and dry weather of the past two weeks has caused many of these plants to become very stressed.

Based on the assumption that the plant continues soil nitrate uptake during nighttime hours, followed by accelerated conversion of the nitrate to protein during daylight hours, previous recommendations have been to wait until afternoon to cut forage sorghum for hay if anticipated nitrate levels are marginally high.

To evaluate the significance of the change in nitrate concentration in forage sorghums during the day, Oklahoma State University Extension Educators collected samples at two hour intervals from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Five cooperator’s fields (“farm”) were divided into quadrants. Three random samples, consisting of ten stems each, were taken from each quadrant at the specified interval.

The samples were analyzed at the Oklahoma State University Soil, Water, and Forage Analytical Laboratory to determine the level of nitrates, in parts per million (ppm). 

As expected, differences between “farms” were substantial and significant. The average concentration of nitrate for individual farms varied from 412 ppm to 8935 ppm. The average nitrate concentrations across all farms were 3857, 3768, 4962, 4140, 4560, and 4077 ppm for samples at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m., respectively.

Remember, most laboratories consider nitrate concentrations at or above 10,000 ppm potentially lethal.

There was much more variation between farms than between harvest times. Time of day of harvest did NOT impact nitrate concentration or proportion of dangerous samples of forage sorghum hay.

Therefore it would be a dangerous false sense of security to think that cutting the forage later in the day would prevent a potentially toxic concentration of nitrates in the hay.

Source: Levalley and co-workers. Abstract, 2009 Midwest Section American Society of Animal Science.  end_mark

—Glenn Selk is an Oklahoma State University Emeritus Extension animal scientist. Excerpt from Cow/Calf Corner e-newsletter.