When it comes to making hay, Clayton Geralds doesn’t pretend he can advise anyone how to grow hay, but he’s willing to talk about what works for him. Although Geralds grows hay in central Kentucky, the terrain and growing conditions are similar to those in the mid-Atlantic region.
After selling his dairy herd, Geralds knew he couldn’t grow row crops on the ground he had, so he looked into growing the best alfalfa possible. Geralds grows about 600 acres of alfalfa and alfalfa/orchardgrass mix, and 150 acres of timothy for the family’s sole source of income.
In 2015, Geralds baled 132,000 small square bales. “In central Kentucky, we get about 44 days to bale hay,” he said. “We start in at the end of April/first of May, and we’re done by the first of October.”
Although timothy isn’t a primary crop, it works well in a rotation. “We’ll sow a pure stand of alfalfa, leave it for one or two years, and the following year drill orchardgrass into it,” said Geralds. “Then we have an alfalfa-orchardgrass stand. We can generally get eight to nine years from a stand. Then we kill it completely and sow timothy. We’ll keep it in timothy for one to two years, depending on demand.”
Geralds cuts hay with two self-propelled windrowers with rubber conditioners. “They cut a 17 foot swath, and we can cut 30 acres/hour,” he said. “We don’t start cutting until the moisture is off, and we want to be finished cutting by noon. That’s a narrow window to cut hay. I want to cut it quickly, and all at the same time,” Geralds added. “The key to top-quality hay is to get it to dry evenly.”
Around May 1, with several days of good weather for making hay, Geralds begins. “We cut the straight alfalfa first,” he said. “If it becomes too mature, we have nothing. But we don’t cut a lot of straight alfalfa at the same time, because it’s hard to handle 6,000 bales of straight alfalfa all on the same day. We’ll cut about 20-25 acres of straight alfalfa, and the rest will be an orchardgrass-alfalfa mix.”
More mature fields, such as a seven-year-old field that’s about 85 percent orchardgrass, are cut next. “If that orchardgrass heads out, it’s worth a lot less,” said Geralds. He compares that stand to a three-year old stand of alfalfa that just had orchardgrass drilled last fall. “It can wait longer because the orchardgrass is young and the quality will maintain longer.” The goal is to harvest so that he gets the best quality for each field.
Geralds says the key to maintaining a healthy, long-lasting stand of orchardgrass is cutting it at the right height. He grows only late-maturing orchardgrass, which normally heads out at the end of May or later.
Like many hay growers, Geralds relies on tedding as part of the process. Geralds says that the key to tedding effectively is to ted hay the same day it’s cut. For tedding, he uses three 26-foot wide tedders that can each handle 20 acres per hour.
“We don’t have to start when it’s too wet, and we don’t have to wait until it’s too dry. The key is getting over all of it quickly and at the right time. In our experience, we’ll be tedding the first and second cut, and the September cut.”
Raking is a critical part of the process, and Geralds says that it’s also the best opportunity to ruin good hay. “We can do more damage by raking hay at the wrong time than by almost any other damage,” he said. “It knocks leaves off and leaves them behind. The key is knowing when to rake.”
Ideally, hay is cut on day one, tedded on day two and raked on day three. On day two, between about 5 and 6 p.m., he checks fields that he hopes to rake the next day. “That’s right before the dew starts falling, and that’s what the hay will be like once the dew is off the next morning,” he said. “If I go out and check the field, and it’s what I call ‘tater chip dry’, I know I need to start raking the next morning when there’s some moisture on it because it’s already too dry. If I check the hay and it’s a little wet, I know the dew has to come off and dry more before it’s raked and baled.”
All hay is baled in small squares because that’s what Geralds’ customers want. On baling day, he runs six small square balers that can bale about 400 bales/hour each. “We can bale about 2,400 bales in an hour,” he said. “That’s 6.6 bales/minute. I know those numbers because I want to know what each baler is doing, when they’re doing it and how they’re doing it so I know if we’re going to get done on time.”
His balers have built-in moisture testers and a read-out in the cab, so Geralds knows the moisture content of each bale before it hits the ground.
Geralds has all but eliminated down time by keeping his hay making equipment up-to-date. He purchases all new equipment and sells it before repairs costs him time and money. He purchases new balers about every four years; tedders and rakes are used for about six to eight years, and tractors are run for up to 5,000 hours.
Keeping a close eye on numbers keeps Geralds’ hay operation in the black. He knows how much hay he can cut, ted and rake in an hour, how many strokes it takes to create a bale, how many bales fit on the loader, and how long it will take to finish a day’s worth of baling. And those numbers add up for profitability.