22 June 2009

Makin' hay while the sun shines

That's the trick around here, in a humid climate there are short weather windows. The best quality hay, and the highest protein hay, is made from pastures in the pre-bloom and early heading stages. For us that means that we can make the best hay from mid to late June. But typically, the weather is difficult to predict, with thunder showers blowing through that may, or may not, go around us. So we have developed a strategy for making good hay in a short weather window, a strategy that also helps us to improve our tired pastures.
The north hay field, which is not grazed, is primarily Timothy grass. The Clovers don't compete well in this field because it is low-lying and floods in the spring melt. Goldenrod is invading, and slowly out-competing the Timothy, and this field will need to be turned and re-sown to completely revitalize it. When our weather window broke this year, the Timothy was in the early heading stages. Actually the animals pick the Timothy heads out of the hay, the seeds would be high in protein. But there is still a high percentage of leaf compared to stalk in this early heading stage. About 20% of this field is scattered with clover, dandelion and vetch, making it a decent hay, but not high enough in protein to carry a lactating animal or weanlings.

We have two acres in this north field that were planted to grain last year. The grain came up with a self-sown understory of clover. After harvesting the grain, we left the clover to establish itself, and these two acres will provide us with the kind of high-protein hay we need for our lactating does. Again, the clover is at it's highest quality in the pre-bloom stage (meaning that the flower buds are just beginning to form), and fortunately, that is exactly when we were able to cut it.

Our strategy for making hay in short weather windows is to cut it early, while the crop is still light, but high quality, and to cut it high. We cut 6 to 8 inches above the ground, instead of the traditional 1 or 2 inches. What's left in the field is mostly stalk, the least palatable or nutritious portion of the plant, and the young growth. The stubble holds the cut hay above the ground, away from moisture, and allowing air flow underneath the windrow. The combination of a light crop and the added air-flow can cut a day or even two off of the drying period.

The benefit of leaving the stalk and young growth is earlier recovery of the fields. Since practicing this method we have noticed our pastures recover earlier and faster in the spring. The also recover quickly after haying, allowing the possibility of a light grazing, or even a second cut of hay in late July.

Actually the practice of cutting and drying herbs has taught me a lot about making good hay. When harvesting a herb, generally the practice is to cut no more than two-thirds of the plant. Similarly, herbs are harvested before flowering. And the highest quality dried herbs are dried quickly and exposed to as little moisture as possible.
We cut on Wednesday afternoon, there were warnings of thunder showers on Wednesday, but the sky cleared and the forecast was for a hot, windy day Thursday, Friday and Saturday were a bit cooler with part cloud, and Sunday called for a chance of showers with rain on Monday. If we got two good drying days in a row, we could comfortably bale Friday afternoon, but if the humidity rose, or with heavy dews, we would bale Saturday. The forecast looked promising, but when is the forecast ever right?

Well, we lucked out with no dew Wednesday night, and Thursday was a perfect drying day, 28C/82F, sunny and breezy. We let the top dry out Thursday, and again no dew Thursdays night. Although Friday morning dawned with a heavy cloud cover and forecast for showers Friday night, rain on Saturday. Oh the fickle spring weather! We raked the hay Friday morning, flipping the windrows to expose damp underside to the drying breezes, and hoped for a break in the clouds. It did break long enough to dry out the hay, but JUST dry enough to save. After a few hours of sun, the clouds once again advanced and we paced the field, testing the hay here and there, finding a few damp clumps, but overall, it was ready.

Hay that is ready to bale should be dry enough to hear it crinkle when you twist it. But it need not be so dry that the leaf crumbles at the touch, not oven dry. If it is too dry, the nutritious leaf will shatter in the baler and you will be left with stalk.

Another way to test the hay is to scrape the stalk. The field pictures didn't come out, so I took this one of some Alfalfa I'm drying for the tea cabinet. If the skin of the stalk peels back, it is dry enough to bale.

We baled Friday afternoon, only 48 hours after cutting, when the typical drying period for a heavy cut of hay is 3 to 4 or more days, a weather window impossible to find in our early summer. And as you can see, as we finished up, the clouds were thick, and it began to spit on us as we unloaded the wagon. Just in time. But it is some of the best hay we have ever made, and worlds apart from any hay we have been able to buy. We harvested 130 (40lb) bales from 4 acres, which is a pretty poor crop when compared to improved pastures. But each one of our bales compares in nutrition to two or three bales of the kind of hay we can buy locally, which are cut in late July and consist primarily of stalk, and only weigh about 25lbs.

We are certainly the talk of the town in the farming circle, they think we are crazy cutting so early and leaving so much stalk in the field! But we would also need twice the barn to store all that poor-quality hay. Most of the local square bales are cut for sale, not for use, and the primary reason for baling in late July or early August is to get as many bales off the field, therefore as much money off the field, as possible. Our hay is cut with a different motivation, and therefore uses different techniques. It would be nice if there were more out-of-the-box thinkers in rural areas to reintroduce fresh ideas and approaches to agrarian life.

4 comments:

farm mom said...

Congrats on all that beautiful hay, it looks lovely!! I know exactly what you mean about being the odd family out in your area....it's the same for us...almost all of our neighbors are involved in industrial farming.

Anonymous said...

Wish we could make our own hay ... yours looks great. Thanks for the background info.
EJ

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

farm mom, sure can be a drag, I just wish they were a bit more curious and less closed-minded... maybe in a generation or two!

EJ, I never knew what really good hay looked like when we were buying it. Seems to be that way with most things. We don't necessarily save money on everything we grow for ourselves, but the quality of what we grow is unmatched by anything we can buy.

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