Saturday, August 16, 2014

Bringing in the hay

One of the major preoccupations this time of year for anyone with livestock is the matter of hay. Specifically, enough hay to get us through until next summer.

Right now we have 16 head of cattle, including little Chuck and Lucy. We're expecting at least two more calves in September (from Matilda and Jet). That will bring us up to 18 head of cattle we'll be overwintering, plus a rather useless horse (Brit).

As a rule of thumb, cattle need about 3% of body weight of hay per day. That percentage would go down to about 2.5% if we were feeding a high-quality feed such as alfalfa; but we prefer to give a better margin of error since we're using a lower-quality grass hay.

We can only estimate the weight of our animals. At one end of the scale are the babies, who won't eat much (especially since they'll be nursing all winter). At the other end is our bull, whom we estimate weighs about 1000 lbs. On average, we're guessing the cows weigh about 700 lbs each.

We like to have at least 25 tons of grass hay tucked into the barn before the snow flies. We like it even better if we can have 30 tons, but we can squeeze by with 25. But this has been a terrible year for hay. Most hay in this region has been rained on at least three times by passing thunderstorms, which increases the chance for dust and mold, and decreases the overall quality (and sometime just plain ruins it, depending on the severity of the rain and the stage of the hay). As Don put it, there's probably a whole lot of people who have "Hay fatigue," as in "Oh man, I just lost $100/ton on my hay."

The absentee owner of the 25-acre field kitty-corner across from us lets us mow and bale his field; but the quality of the resulting grass hay is poor to begin with, and we can never tell how much or little we'll get from this pasture. We can only count on this parcel providing us with a fraction of how much hay we'll need.

So when another neighbor called and offered us his baled timothy (an excellent grass hay) that had been rained on once, for the bargain price of $120/ton, we jumped at the offer with both feet forward! Deal!

We were anxious to get the bales moved and stacked since odd thunderstorms were still threatening every few days.

First thing we had to do was clean up the barn and make room.

During this process we found a big clutch of eggs.

Then Don re-stacked some bales we'd bought over the summer to feed the bull. He made the stacks four bales high to clear up more floor space.

Once the barn was ready, we chose a day with the neighbor and we all got up really early (to avoid the heat -- this is when the heat wave was still on us). Don and I drove around to the neighbor's land to load hay. Don drove the truck with a trailer attached.

I drove the tractor.

We passed the pasture where our poor-quality grass hay had already been cut and rained on once or twice. The farmer who mows and bales it has already raked some of it into windrows.

Here's some parts that hadn't been raked yet.

Here's the farmer's tractor and rake, waiting for the day's work to begin.

The rake functions by pulling multiple rows of mown hay into a larger, fluffier row called a windrow. Windrows are far more efficient for the baler than having hay spread out all over.

The edge of our neighbor's field.

These bales are about 650 to 700 lbs. each.

Here's our neighbor Steve, with his tractor and trailer.

Ready to start loading.

There's just something so pretty about watching hay being loaded.

Gradually our barn began filling.

A couple of days after loading the 14 tons of timothy from our neighbor, the farmer who was baling the field across from us finished raking and began baling (in small bales). Trouble was, his baler kept malfunctioning. Can you see the hay just going "Bleeeaaahhhh" from the back of his baler?

It's like the baler was vomiting or something. Balers are temperamental beasts at the best of times, so this was no doubt frustrating beyond belief for the farmer.

But after a few days the baler got fixed, and he resumed baling the windrows.

A few days later, he brought out his loader (which holds 42 bales at a time) and started collecting the bales.


Some loads he stacked against the heavier hay bales, while others he just tumbled into the barn (because the barn walls didn't have heavy bales to protect them). Kind of a mess, but we were just grateful for the hay delivery.

As the evening shadows lengthened...

...the farmer gathered the last of the bales from the field and brought them in. We only got 8.25 tons from that 25-acre field, an incredibly poor haul. Well-maintained fields can often yield two tons per acre. We got one-third of a ton per acre. If we can scrape together the money, eventually we want to get that whole field plowed, reseeded, and fertilized with timothy. Cha-ching cha-ching.

As he found time, Don turned to the task of moving the tumbled hay bales and stacking them neatly.

The girls helped as well.

The few bales left outside are ones we'll feed to the animals in the bull pen.

Despite the heat wave that blasted us for so many weeks, we saw Canada geese overhead, a sure sign that fall is coming.

It feels good to have all our hay in.


  1. It is a great feeling to have a barn full of hay this time of year. another worry gone1

  2. It's been uncharacteristically hot up in norther Canada, too. I always enjoy reading your farm posts :)

  3. Ugh. I don't know what it is about hay but I've been enamored with it since I was a teen and helped put it up in MI with my uncle and grandpa for their cows. Here in Alaska I need a meager 40-50 bales (small) per winter to eek by, but it's a daunting task with only a small pick up truck, no trailer, no tractor, no way to bale our 1 acre field, etc. We will only have two does in milk this winter and currently the 2 doelings and one buckling may end up in the freezer as this summer goats are just not selling. Good luck with your adventure!

  4. I'm not going to try to do the math; did you get enough for a comfortable winter?

  5. Nice work! Doesn't it feel good too see progress? I have soooo many carrots, I feel good getting 6 pints of "pickled carrots" in the canner. New experiment!
    Kelly in K'ville, NC

  6. I love the feeling of a barn full of hay! That there is one heckuva tangible asset.

    But, I can't imagine doing hay by hand in 90 degree weather.

    Just Me

  7. Question why do you not use a weight tape to find out how much your cattle weigh, besides the obvious hassle it is? I still can not believe those hay bales, wow. I see a lot of the round plastic covered ones where I live as with the standard size bales. It is always a surprise to see what you can find in the hay stack, kittens are the cuteness. :) Here is hope all the bales are dry and you do not run out.


  8. Question why do you not use a weight tape to find out how much your cattle weigh, besides the obvious hassle it is? I still can not believe those hay bales, wow. I see a lot of the round plastic covered ones where I live as with the standard size bales. It is always a surprise to see what you can find in the hay stack, kittens are the cuteness. :) Here is hope all the bales are dry and you do not run out.


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  10. Your posts are so detailed and the numerous photos are fascinating even to this farmer who does the same thing! Well not quite. Here in central Illinois we do big round bales, but the processes are the same. We've been blessed this year with rain at perfect times and few really hot day.I feel guilty when I read of your poor conditions and hay yields. May your winter be milder!

  11. are these normal hay making conditions for your area? you might want to consider making baleage instead. You'd need to wrap them or put them in big plastic rolls.

    also, while thinking about the investment of your leased hay field, you should consider that cost over a 3 yr term. Also, try and get some feel on whether the owner might not allow you to use it for that long, if you are going to invest fertilizer/seed/labor in it.

    Been there, done that.

  12. We are fixing to get cattle for the first time and are debating on how best to feed them. I would like, in an ideal world, to 100% grass feed them, but having only a small pasture (1.5 acres) will make that difficult. Thankfully my parents have a small hay field so we are getting a good deal on hay, but my dad is insistent that we will have to feed grain, too.

    How do you feed your cattle, particularly in winter?