by Frank Gringeri
Usually, we start cutting hay around the end of May. It never got hot and dry and we didn’t have three good days the whole month of June. Maybe July will have a different personality. I’m not sure horse owners know the kind of work that goes into making a good bale of hay. This is what you need to get it done.
We live and make hay in the Southern Champlain Valley of Vermont. Most all the soils we have are silty clay loam, some 235 acres or so. These are deep, lake bottom clays that take their time drying out. They hold moisture well and hang onto fertilizer pretty good too. On the downside, they stay wet just a little longer after it rains. This holds true for all our fields, as they are mostly flat. You really need good dry ground to lay down the hay and dry it properly. The two main grasses here are smooth brome and timothy, along with some clovers and trefoil. Orchardgrass doesn’t persist well on heavy soils but now and then you get some in a dry year.
We have our land base; now we need machinery to harvest the hay. We need a cutter to cut down the grasses and a tedder to give it a kick to open it up. Next, a rake makes rows of hay for the baler. We need a baler and wagons to gather up the bales. We need tractors to pull all this stuff around. After that, we need a good truck and trailer to deliver bales. And, of course, we need help unloading wagons and stacking it up in the mow. (Four high schoolers will make a good hay crew if you keep after them.) We need a couple barns to store all the hay and keep it dry too.
Yes, this all sounds so easy. But we have Mother Nature to deal with. She can be very fickle; we watch the weather like a hawk but she can still fool us with a pop-up shower on baling day when it’s ready to go. Then there are breakdowns when we need everything to be working – or the baler stops tying for no good reason. We get good at patching things up to get through the day. Every year there is always hay equipment for sale, as many decided it was just too labor intensive or difficult to make good hay.
So why do we make hay every year and swear it will be our last? We love making good hay for ourselves and our customers. We’re using the land to produce something saleable as well as maintaining the fields and keeping them in good shape. When we landed here some 15 years ago, it was mostly goldenrod, burdock and weeds. Cattle had trampled the ground to death in wet periods and caused a lot of compaction. Now, with lime and fertilizer and keeping off when soaked, we have stands of grasses as good as any. I guess seeing the progress over time and watching the fields turn around is more rewarding than all the financial gains. But being sustainable and making a living off the land was why we came up here to begin with. No, it’s not easy or perfect but with diligence and hard work we have made it on a piece of land with a lifestyle that somehow seems to have been forgotten. As long as we’re able, we will always make hay in the summer. It’s just what we do and old habits are hard to break.