By request, here’s a basic primer on how haying works!
First, some definitions:
Hay is grass and grass stems that animals eat. It’s cut from fields that could also serve as pasture. Correctly made, hay provides most or all of the nutrients an animal needs to survive the winter. The best hay is greenish in color. Whether fresh or in hay, the leaves of the grass provide the nutrition, while stalks and stems are roughage that animals often avoid eating.
Straw is the leftover stalk after a grain is harvested. Oat straw and wheat straw are the yellowed, leftover stalks that the seedheads we know as oats and wheat grew on, respectively. Straw is not a nutritious or complete ration for animals.
Silage is any crop that is stored in an anaerobic environment, effectively “pickled” for animal feed. Commonly, corn is used as silage. Corn growing at your local dairy farm isn’t palatable for people, but when the whole stalk is ground up and ensiled, cattle love it! Corn silage is not safe for sheep, but Haylage, which is hay that is wrapped and slightly pickled is good feed for sheep. Haylage and silage both require special storage to prevent pathogens that can cause catastrophic illness.
In all of the climates that have a dry season or deep snows, animals need some kind of forage for the period of time when grass is unavailable. Winter forage production (both hay and root crops like mangels) and storage governed how many breeding animals could be overwintered, both before mechanization and now. There was no use keeping an extra cow if she was just going to starve in March, so farmers took winter feed calculation seriously.
Making hay requires ripe grass and dry weather. Ripe grass is a whole separate treatise, but a simple rule of thumb is that leafy species should have three leaves, and grass is best before the plants in the pasture go to seed.
Prior to mechanization, farmers cut hay with a scythe. An efficient scythe operator might cut a couple of acres of hay in a day. Without weather reports, farmers had to trust their wisdom and experience to predict the likelihood of 3-4 days of good dry weather.
Once the hay was cut, it needed to be raked up into windrows (long, linear piles) and then raked out again. This ensures that the hay dries evenly, preventing damp spots that could rot your hay (and even cause fires) and excessive drying. Hay that is too dry will crumble to dust during the baling process and be lost.
Before mechanization, hay was stored in stacks. Most of us have seen childish renditions of farming where there are yellow haystacks everywhere. That cultural idea is a relic from before the invention of baled hay. Creating a haystack is a special skill that has all but vanished, though it is discussed in the book Far From the Madding Crowd, incidentally, a worthwhile read for anyone interested in historical sheepraising.
After two days of drying, with sessions of raking hay to spread it out and then raking it into windrows, modern hay is baled. Bales are a nice, portable format to move hay around the farm to the animals that need it.
Three types of bales are common – small square bales, large square bales, and large round bales. In the Northeast, small squares and large rounds are most common.
Small squares are probably what you are picturing if someone says the words “Bale of Hay”. They are usually about 3/4 feet long, 18 inches wide, weigh about 35-45 pounds, and are easy to move with a bit of muscle. We used this format of bale before we began making our own hay. It was easy to load some in the bed of the truck, drive them to our farm and gradually feed them to the sheep. For about 10 ewes, small squares were perfect.
However, when you start to manage large numbers of sheep, small bales become exhausting and impractical. Back during my years working on a goat farm, we would feed upwards of 12-15 square bales a day for five to six months. That’s a lot of bale-schlepping! For my comparable numbers of ewes, we feed two round bales every other day. Much less work for us since we have the tractors to do the heavy lifting for us. We wrap our round bales in plastic to make those “marshmallow” bales you commonly see. Not ideal, obviously, so we are looking for solutions that are better for the earth but ideally don’t require an enormous barn to store the bales. We wrap the bales to protect them from damaging water, which can destroy a hay bale completely.
For people interested in making hay, there are a wide variety of equipment options that cater to larger and smaller scales, different kinds of terrain, and personal preference.
We have two tractors, a 27 Horsepower Ford 1720 and an 80 Horsepower Zetor Major 80. The Ford can power everything except our large mower and our baler. The Zetor does those larger efforts, plus tough jobs like moving bales around and doing barn cleanout.
This is our smaller mower for small fields. We have two drum mowers, one for small fields and one better suited to large fields.
The drum mower spins at high speed, allowing small cutters to cut the grass evenly. We prefer this mower to a disc mower because hitting a rock is less potentially catastrophic with this design.
This is our side-delivery rake. It’s a basic old rake – try to picture the two discs turning, causing a motion that always directs the grass leftward. It neatly sweeps the cut grass into windrows. I learned how to rake recently and I have to say that I enjoy the work.
This is our tedder. It is in a folded-up position right now – in operation, the spinning circles are in a line perpendicular to the tractor. The tines on spinning circles pick up the mown hay and fluff it around, allowing it to dry evenly and breaking up clumps.
How Haying Works
By request, here’s a basic primer on how haying works!