Country Living Series

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hay day

This time of year can be a bit nail-biting because it's the time of year to get hay in. I say "nail biting" because an ill-timed rainfall can ruin a lot of hay.

Before bringing in hay, however, we needed to prepare the barn. The most obvious problem was all the huge tractor tires that were stacked in front.

We decided to move them to the side and back of the barn. We borrowed a neighbor's tractor for the task. Don managed to snag some of the tires by their rims...

...but for most of them we had to use a chain. At one point a very pregnant Matilda ambled over to see what all the activity was about.

After a couple hours' work, the tires were all stacked behind...

...and to the side of the barn.

We made sure the front of the barn was blocked off by cattle panels (sometimes called hog panels) to keep the critters out of the remaining hay bales.

Now it was time to get hay.

Grass hay is just mown-down field grass, dried and baled. The best fields don't have too much western hawkweed (a nasty invasive species that crowds out grasses) or cheat grass (a nutritionally useless invasive grass that "cheats" by droppings its seeds earlier than other species, thus giving itself a seeding advantage) or St. John's wort (which resembles 12-gauge wire when it's dried).

The absentee owner of the 25-acre field kitty-corner across from our property allows us to mow and bale his pasture. Depending on how much rainfall we get in the spring (this year: not much), we might get anywhere from nine to fifteens tons of grass hay off this property.

This year we'll be over-wintering 18 head of cattle, which means we're going to need about thirty tons of grass hay in the barn. In addition to the grass hay from across the way, we need to find other affordable hay to supplement what we get off this property.

The trouble is, we don't own any of the equipment necessary to bale grass hay. We don't have a tractor, a swather, a rake, or a baler. This means we're at the mercy of whatever farmer we can sweet talk into baling the property for us in a timely fashion. I say "sweet talk" because all farmers are stretched VERY thin this time of year. There's a tremendous amount of work to be done in a very short window of time, and these hardworking people frequently put in 18 hour days getting it done. I say "timely fashion" because if you wait too long to cut grass hay, it turns into grass straw and has very few nutrients.

A local fellow by the name of Alan has mowed the neighbor's pasture for us for the last two years. This year he mowed it on July 17.

A few days later, he mowed another neighbor's land. (No, the cows aren't in with him. There's a fence between them.)

After the hay is mown, it must lie on the ground for a few days to dry. You can't bale fresh green grass or it will rot and mold, and even spontaneously combust a few months later. But when hay is drying on the ground, it's nail-biting. Will it rain?

After the hay dried for a few days, Alan came through with a rake and pulled the rows of hay into windrows. All this means is he blends several shallow thin rows into one larger, wider row. This serves two purposes: it fluffs the hay and lets it dry some more, plus it allows Alan to bale the hay more efficiently.

When Younger Daughter and I returned from our week-long trip to Portland, we saw that Alan had baled the grass hay during our absence.

He also had the first load of bales stacked in the loader to deliver to our place.

Groan. This meant that, no matter how tired Younger Daughter and I were from the trip, the next day was going to be a Hay Day.

Actually, we had no choice. We got home on Monday, and Thursday and Friday promised to be rainy. Rain plus hay equals rot. We can't feed our cows rot over the winter.

We spent some time cleaning up the barn to make room for incoming bales. This meant piling all the haybale twine that gets tossed around all winter long into one spot, as well as pulling aside any other random things on the barn floor (such as a billboard tarp).

In the corner are the bales left over from last year (we had a surplus for once!). We've been feeding these to the bull, since of course he's penned up and can't graze. After some thought, we decided to leave these bales where they are, stack the new hay off to the side of them, and continue using the older bales up first.

We also hired two of Enola Gay's kids, Miss Serenity and Master Hand Grenade (on the right), to help stack bales. These kids are hard workers and strong. (Sorry for the blurry photo.)

Here comes Alan with the first load.

The loader tips upward and tumbles the bales out.

Poor Alan tried to use these built-in feet-pushy-gizmos that were supposed to push the bottom-most bales out, but the durn things got stuck in the "out" position and he spent a frustrating half-hour banging and cursing at the machine until the feet retracted. That's the Big Trouble with farm equipment: it breaks. A lot.

We asked Alan if he wanted to back the loader directly into the barn and stack it that way, but Alan doesn't feel confident about his backing-up skills to avoid hitting the support beams on the barn. Can't blame him, it's a liability issue. So once the bales had tumbled out of the loader, Alan drove off to get another load while Team One stacked about eight or ten bales onto a pallet strapped to the neighbor's tractor and lifted it into the barn.

Then Team Two unloaded and stacked the bales.

We stacked hay for two evenings in a row (Tuesday and Wednesday), and this is what we ended up with: about nine tons. This is about one-third the amount of hay we'll need for the winter.

There was a lot of loose hay that had accumulated in front of the barn. Hey, no sense letting it go to waste! We knew just what to do with it. After blocking off the barn with the cattle panels, we sent out the trumpet call of "Bossy bossy bossy bossy BOSSY!!" over the pasture. Within moments the thundering herd was on their way up.

They dove for the hay and munched away happily.

We got all this done just in time. A few sprinkles fell on Wednesday night, but the heavy rain started on Thursday. It rained and rained and rained, about two inches total (quite a lot for this region at this time of year).

The search is now on for about 18 more tons of hay at a price we can afford, in order to have enough for all our critters over the winter. The rain hit at a particularly vulnerable time for many farmers in the region, and hay prices are likely to be high as a result.

It's a farmer's life.


  1. I like that hay loader, we used to have to walk beside the trailer and toss the bales up to someone who rode the trailer and stacked it. Then throw it up onto another stack in the barn. You guys have it figured out! I don't have any equipment now so I cut it with a scythe and put it up loose a little at a time.

  2. We put up about 3000 ton of big round bales each year, and it is always a juggling act between cutting the grass so you have good quality hay, avoiding the rains, and getting our crops planted. As you said, "it's a farmer's life."

  3. Your hay situation sounds like ours 2 years ago. Our area was in a 4th stage drought and they were selling corn stalk round bales for $90! My neighbor had to drive clear up into Nebraska to find hay that was even semi reasonable in price. Of course by the time you factored in the gas cost it probably was not much better in price as what was available locally but the quality was better. I wish you luck in finding hay at an affordable price.

  4. Ah, memories. Those idyllic days in the broiling Mississippi sun slinging hay bales. As long as one of us has to do it, I'm glad it's you.


  5. We have the opposite problem: Lots of grass, but daily rain. Hay is going to be poor quality here!

    Is there any chance that you'll be able to get another cutting from that grass considering the amount of rain that just came in?

  6. I wish you were around here. We have sooooo much hay that we don't have room for it in the barn anymore. We are going to have to sell it or let it dry and burn it this winter for it's nutrients.

  7. Yep what memorys that brings.... In the summers that's what we (school buds) did for a job @ .3 per bale which included stacked in the barn. We didn't get paid for the ones that broke. One raced to the next bale and two of us stacked the truck ... Boy I wished we had hay hooks?...(just didn't have the time to go buy them)
    Here in western Missouri this year everybody's got everything they need off the first cutting .... It was up to $90. + per round ....(if they could get it 2 winters ago?)
    Ahhh summertime in Kansas .....

  8. I was wondering, do you have a plan for acquiring hay for the winter if the S--- hits the fan? I know you pride yourselves on self-sufficiency, but how self-sufficient are you if you dont have tractors available to you for use. I think it's great that your neighbors are so willing to help you out.
    My son wants to move to Idaho, so we took a little trip up that way Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. We drove up to Spokane then a cross to Coeur d' Alene and then down to Boise via Hwy 95 and 55. I have to testify of the rain on Friday, Aug.2 it poured so much that we didn't tour Coeur d'Alene and just kept driving down to McCall. I was impressed with the area. I could not believe the grain fields that went on for miles and miles and miles and as far a the eye could see over the rolling hills. Was beautiful. We then drove over to Idaho Falls, where it has some similarities to our own small town, so he has decided to move there. If I was moving, I would choose somewhere between Coeur d' Alene and McCall. Good luck acquiring the hay you will need.

    1. We've actually discussed this quite a bit. We have four scythes and know how to use them. If the bleep hits the fan, the first thing we would do is reduce our herd size (sales, butchering, whatever) and only keep a select few animals such as the bull, our milking animals, a couple of meat animals, some calves, etc. The rough rule of thumb is we need about two tons of hay per animal to get through the lean months. Assuming we only get 9 tons of grass hay from the property across from us, this means we could keep about four adult bovines and two young calves for the winter. Scything 25 acres would be tiring but do-able, and we would be trundling the loose (unbaled) hay into our barn via hand-pulled wagons.

      - Patrice

    2. 25 acres?.... Are you crazy (hahaha) .... It's bad enough using the JD rider for the lawn here .... HaHaHa

  9. Wow! You are blessed! Here in Kentucky, there are no hay loaders like your farmer used. We have to pick up each and every square bale on the ground where it falls out of the baler, put it on the wagon, and then put it in the barn. HOT HOT work! We still have some to do here are well.
    We do have our own hay equipment, but it is old. Who can afford a $5,000 disc mower? We just had ours rebuild for $647.00. Our baler was $1500 and our rake was around $800. but it is like you said, it all breaks. Rake took about $400 last year to get it back into working mode.

  10. How awesome to have neighbors that are so kind. Farmers are some of the best.

  11. I have never lived on a farm but I fantasize about it on occasion :) I realize that it is a LOT of hard work, and it would likely kick my butt, however the fantasy remains. Reading your blog and looking at all the pictures has been wonderful for me. Keep it coming!

  12. Given all the "from experience" comments, I realize how comparably little $15/bale (square) is for peanut hay when you factor in the equipment, land, labor, trucking, and risk that goes into it. Needless to say, this is something that we will likely never be self-sufficient in on our 1 might acre, but then again here in Central FL the rye grass grows all through the winter.

    1. They don't have perennial peanut hay up yonder, so they don't know what it is! The nutritional value is @ the same as alfalfa. No blister beetles, though.

  13. when my grandpa needed extra grass hay he would mow the ditches along the road. All of the grandkids would go out a couple of days later and rake it all up into windrows so it could be baled. He used to get quite a bit of hay that way.

    1. What a great idea! Since the grass alongside the road gets extra water from runoff from the road, it should be more lush than the actual fields.

  14. You might get some deals on last years hay. I don't know if they round bale in Idaho. They didn't when I lived there years ago. Moldy hay is fine for cattle but deadly for horses. Keep an eye out for "spoiled" hay at a bargain and feed this to your cattle. Just make sure you feed good mineral. The cattle will eat a little more but it will do in a bind. Also feed your good hay when they need it most, after calving and right after the grass come up in the spring. All grass is mostly water then and they need good hay. We speed up the drying process here (KY) by using a Tedder after the hay is cut. If you work on your pastures, fertilize, weed control, and get a great stand established I'll bet you'd have a lot of folks wanting to put up your hay on "shares". Kind of like what the loggers do with the land owners. Negotiate a good split. That's how I get my hay harvested on my 3 acre hay field. Hope this helps.