GENE LOGSDON: Backyard Hay Too 


The Contrary Farmer

Demand for new and used machinery for grain farming is down alarmingly because of the uncertainty in the corn and bean market, but haying equipment is on the upswing. The experts say this demand is because beef prices are climbing but that means to me that livestock farming needs hay more than it does corn . The more modern farming has tried to eschew hay rather than chew it, the more hay has proven its value.

Hay is our number three crop (after corn and soybeans), nothing to sneeze at unless you have hay fever. If common sense ever returns to grain farming, many of the acres planted to corn and beans in recent years will go back to pasture and hay because steep hills and dry plains are too erosive for annual cultivation. All hay needs to become our number one crop is more ways to get it in the barn quicker without rain. The latest goal is to  make “hay in a day.” After mowing, conditioning, and windrowing, the hay is wrapped in plastic in big round bales still quite wet— around 50% moisture. It will then keep satisfactorily. I’ve not made hay myself this way and am a little leery. But it does sort of get rid of the problem of heavy lifting in haymaking because it’s all done by machines not muscles and dairy farmers, or rather their cows, love it.

Advances in smaller scale haymaking make it easier to get hay in the barn without rain too. A big help now is meteorology. We cuss the weather people, but they get it right most of the time. Haymakers can scrutinize those weather maps as closely as the meteorologists do, and most of the time can tell when a three day window of fair weather is going to open up. Then with modern equipment, fifteen acres of hay can be put away easily enough in that three day stretch.

Getting hay to dry fast, but not too dry, is really an art. The best way is to think herb drying. Cut off a fist full of grass and clover manually, tie it into a swatch and hang it on a clothesline in a dark, dry room with a fan for circulating air. Yeah. How many thousands of fistfuls would it take to overwinter even one cow that way? But if you had that kind of quality clover hay, that’s all your cows would need for feed. As I have bragged here before, I had some nearly perfect alfalfa hay once and fed it to our milk cows without any grain at all. No problems.

The more you can mimic herb drying out in the field, the better. Mow in the morning after the dew is off. The latest “discovery” in haymaking is that hay cut with an old sickle bar mower that falls flat in a thin layer will dry faster than with today’s monster mowers and conditioners that tend to bunch the swathed hay. Now there are new machines to spread the swath back out again. Cha-king $$$, cha-king $$$. With the new bigger swaths, tedding has become almost necessary for faster drying. I have made tons and tons (literally) of hay without ever using a tedder. I argue that getting hay into a windrow where much of it dries out of direct sunlight makes better hay with less leaf shattering. Even raking requires great timeliness to keep leaves from shattering. Do it when the hay is still not quite dry. Big fat expensive windrows dry slower than little skinny cheap ones.

Now haymakers have gadgets that tell you the moisture content of the hay. More cha- king, cha-king. I know when hay is ready by the feel of it but I do not know how to translate that feel into words. Problem is, if storm clouds are hovering on the horizon, you start baling even if the hay is not quite ready. There are liquids you can spray on the bales if it is not dry to keep it from molding in the bale, but that’s cha-king, cha-king too.

There are many part time farmers making hay these days and for them taking time off from their off-farm job when hay needs to be cut NOW is a problem. They often rely on a custom baler which also can be a problem when hay needs baling NOW. If you don’t want to buy a baler, it is still practical to stack hay in the field like the one pictured in the Monet above, if you need only smaller amounts. Doing it with the hand fork is not much harder than bucking bales.

Here’s another far out idea for the backyard farm. Maintain a lawn with lots of white clover in it and let it grow a couple inches taller than you normally would before mowing. Let it dry on the lawn after mowing until next day, pile it loosely under cover, and feed it to your backyard chickens all winter. Throw a handful of wheat in the coop every day per every dozen chickens. I’ve overwintered my hens on good alfalfa hay that way, so why not high quality lawn clover hay?

One Comment

One way to judge when the hay is cured is to take a main stem and bite down on it. If it “gives” without feeling wet, it’s ready. If it feels like it’s breaking through a hollow place, it’s over done but probably ok. If it actually breaks off, it’s fried.
Thanks for this very interesting article.