by Ty Mason
When I was growing up we had beef cattle at home and bought the hay to feed them. I knew from that time that if I was going to go into farming livestock of any kind commercially, I was going to make my own hay.
Since I had no experience of haying other than stacking bales and feeding them out, I had a lot to learn. I was and still am trying to build a goat dairy. I told my father I would rather go through the learning stage of producing feed when I had 20 animals than when I had 200 animals. I told him that six years ago and I am still learning and have learned that haying is one of those chores that no matter how many years one has under their belt, they will learn something each year.
A few years back I made a deal with a neighboring farmer that I would help him with his hay as he helped me with mine. I learned a lot from that farmer and I felt bad about all the times I interrupted him from his milk chore to come fix my John Deere 14T square baler from back in 1963. Any time I had a problem he came and helped as soon as he was able. I returned the favor by helping him put up his square bales, but I still felt like I was being a hindrance.
I had known for a long time before then how the weather affects the hay quality and the importance of getting the hay in the barn and keeping it high and dry. My lessons at that point were about keeping equipment maintained and tools close by to be as efficient as possible because you need to make hay when the sun shines. There is more to it than just mowing a field and throwing bales. This mentor said to me as he pointed to the edge of the field at the windrow closest to the woodline, “Make sure the dew don’t set on the hay in the shadows.” When he said that, it made sense to me how much there is to making good hay. Though a lot of it is simply common sense, it is a basic science. He added, “And if it does, just flip it back over tomorrow before you bale it.”
Over the last few years, I have learned how much of an art haying square bales truly is. You need to be doing it yourself to realize that, rather than throwing and stacking bales for the farmer. I have also gained a taste of how stressful it is. After mowing, it is best to ted the hay out as soon as possible. Depending on weather conditions, you may end up doing that once or you might need to fluff it out three or four times. Raking is the same way. You might do it once or you might have to flip it back over before you bale it. It’s all a matter of paying attention to how it has conditioned in the field under the current stretch of weather. When you get good at it, you’ll be able to tell by looking at it if it’s dry enough. Just because the hay is brown and sounds like you’re walking on breakfast cereal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dry enough, as I found out the hard way one year.
I started breaking baling twine on every bale and wondered why. After the 10th or so bale in a row, I got off the tractor and walked over to the last bale. It was so wet it felt spongy. I shoved my hand down between two flakes and the middle it was so hot it almost felt like if I had left my hand there, it would have been burned. That is one example of hay that causes barn fires. The windrows felt dry, but once the baler compressed them, more water squeezed out. There was no sense hurrying at that point. I let the windrows sit there through that next day’s rain, which pushed me to try to get the field done in the first place. I waited for drier weather to finally pick the hay up. When that drier weather finally came a few days later I ted it out at least twice more. As my mechanic, who is also a farmer, said, “It won’t make the best hay, but it’ll be better than snowballs.” Indeed, that hay was dark brown with no more clover left in it. After sitting for so long and constantly being beat around by the equipment, the hay lost most of its nutritional value, though constantly fluffing it out made it so it didn’t mold either.
That year I got a good second cut after all. The weather was right and the timing was good. The bales were dark green and soft as it was cut in early October. My mentor called it “good rowen,” which is what second cut soft-textured dry hay is called. Especially for milking animals, I wish all my hay could be like this. However, if you have horses, you want the lighter green, first cut, coarser hay. Dusty is mulch if you can help it. I ended up giving that rowen to my animals and mixed some of the low quality first cut in. If I remember right, I managed to sell the remainder of the low quality for mulch.
As a side note, no matter what the hay quality is, I tell horse owners to come to look at the hay where I have it and they can tell me if they want to feed that hay to their horses or not. Sometimes, someone will have a variety of livestock and if they don’t think the hay is quite good enough for their horses they will simply feed it to their ruminants and give their horses something else.
Square bales especially need to be so dry they won’t mold or burn. Mold can make your animals sick and it could also get hot if it is wet inside the bale, causing spontaneous combustion – and that is how many barns have unfortunately burned down over the years. Unlike a wrapped round bale, “a square bale is exposed to all the oxygen in the world and that’s what fuels a fire,” as I heard one farmer put it. Plastic bale wrap seals out the oxygen.
Always remember with square bales to wait for a three or four day stretch of warm sunny days with no rain in sight, and then don’t mow any more than you can get dry and harvested before the next rain. That time I talked about above was done when I only had about a two-and-a-half day stretch of dry days in the forecast and those drier days were cloudy and cool. That was not good hay weather, especially for square bales. Someone putting up chopped hay would have likely gotten away with it because the chopped feed is intentionally quickly gathered, packed and covered to retain nutritional benefits for ruminants. Some years, like this year, are ideal for making dry square bale hay and some years, like two years ago, are so unbearable you’ll want to give up.
That brings me to my story of haying the first cut this year. I have a Kuhn mower that is too large for my 50-horsepower 1957 Massey Ferguson to run. Therefore, my brother mows for me with his 90-horsepower Kioti. On the day he mowed, I tedded right behind him with my old Massey. That night it poured. The next day I ted it out again. That night, it poured again. After that I ted it, raked it, and the next day, I raked it again. For the next few days, the hay sat in the beating sun. I ted and raked one field intensively with the right timing and the hay stayed in good condition. In the end, I had picked up bales that were dry, easy to handle and had a light green coloration. The field down the road that was mowed the same day, I ted out less as I had concentrated on the other field. Then I had problems with the slip clutch on my baler which delayed that field being picked up further. I was disappointed that by the time I baled it, the hay did not hold the same good quality as the other field did. There were also some circumstances which caused me to have to work almost alone during that first cut, so that threw my timing off. Because the second field had waited longer to get ted out after the quick storms, it didn’t cure as well.
Making livestock feed is an art of its own and each farmer has their own way of practicing it. In the end, what is most important is that all the animals have the proper nutrition they need to stay healthy. I know a man who once said, “If you just never feed them the good stuff, they’ll never know the difference.” A farmer remarked simply to this, “Poor excuse!” Every effort should be made to assure healthy feed whether it is in the form of loose hay or chopped bunker silage. The weather is the most detrimental player in all of this and the factor we have the least control over.
Hay in the shadows
by Ty Mason