Homesteading, Organic Gardening, How to Farm, Preparedness, Self-Reliance
The Happy Homesteader
This time of year everyone around us is cutting hay. When you see a neighbor on the street or if you bump into someone at the hardware store the question everyone is asking is, "Did you get your hay up?" It's this strange phenomenon that I never knew about until I became a land owner. I actually remember the time that I asked what the difference between hay and straw is. Now I know far more about hay than I ever thought I would and let me tell you...it's the most frustrating time of year! If you are going to homestead, chances are great that you will be involved with hay to some degree, so you should know something about it.
First off, the difference between hay and straw is that hay is preserved food, but straw is not for eating. Straw is basically dead grass. A good example is wheat straw. Crop farmers who grow wheat for seed will let the wheat grow to maturity, produce seed heads, and then dry out in the field - hence the amber waves of grain. Once the seed heads are dried hard, then they come in with the combines and harvest them. What is left is the plant part below the seed heads. These dead and dry stems and leaves contain no nutrients since all of that was given to the seed head and because the grass is now dead. This can be cut and baled into straw though which is very useful for bedding, mulching gardens, or covering bare ground to stop erosion. Of course, some of the seeds could be mixed up in the straw if they were missed, so it is not uncommon for straw to germinate some little grass here and there. This could become a problem if you are mulching your garden and all of a sudden you have wheat grass growing! If you are worried about this, then you can pre-sprout a bale of straw by soaking it with water for a few days and leaving it in the sun to force any seeds that are in it to germinate. Once sprouted, you can break the bale apart and spread it as mulch. The disruption of the roots during spreading will kill the newly germinated plants and you'll be left with seed free mulch for your garden. The good thing about straw is that it will last for a very long time if it is kept dry and away from rodents. There's nothing to go bad in it, so it's good to always have a bale or two on hand in case you need to make an emergency shelter for an animal, have a flooded water line that needs soaking up, or need some quick ground cover. It comes in very handy on a homestead.
Hay is a totally different thing and will be more expensive because it is more difficult to harvest since it is food. Of course, there are many different types of hay and the price always depends on the weather. If the weather has been conducive to growing lots of grass, then there will be an abundance of hay in your area which will drive the price down. Hay bought during a drought, when there is little grass to be cut and many animal owners needing to buy hay will be very expensive. The different levels of hay will also vary in price. For example, cattle quality hay will be lower grade and will have more weeds, more diversity in the types of grasses in a bale, and the grass could be more lignified or dried out which is more fibrous rather than nutritious. Cows do well on this type of hay, but horses who have more delicate digestive systems require horse quality hay, which is less weedy and more nutritious. Horse quality hay usually comes from a field that is dedicated just to hay making and therefore has planted grasses that are uniform and maybe even sprayed with fertilizer and weed killer to ensure that just the good quality grass is grown.
The next thing to know about hay is that it can be baled into square bales or round rolls. Square bales are moveable by hand, stack well, and can be easily thrown on top of a 4-wheeler to be driven out on the farm. Round bales need a hay spear and machinery to be moved. If you have just a few animals then square bales make most sense, but if you'll be feeding a herd of cows then you'll want round bales so that you don't have to deliver so often. In either case, when you feed hay to animals they will make a mess of it. They pull out a mouthful at a time and drop lots on the ground, which they then step on, sleep in, or use for the bathroom. Wasted hay is wasted money, so invest in or make a hay feeder. A hay ring is a round metal cage to hold a round bale of hay so that the cows must reach their heads in to pull out the hay and cannot stand in it. It also keeps the roll together rather than letting it fall apart while it gets eaten down. There are smaller V-shaped hay feeders for smaller animals or for use in stalls. You'll also need a place to store your hay. If hay is left uncovered outside then the rain will deteriorate the outside layer. You can expect 2-4 inches of wasted hay on the outside of any roll that has been left outside. The animals will pull this off and leave it on the ground. Also, the mold that grows here can spread to the inside of the bale. Net wrapped hay versus the round bales that are tied with a few strings will repel more rain water and protect the bale better. Before feeding any hay, always pull out a handful and check for mold. Moldy hay can cause a number of respiratory problems in animals. Your storage area could be high ground with weighted tarps to cover the hay, but it's better if you can get it under a barn. If hay is in a barn, then be sure there is plenty of ventilation. Many a barn fire has been started by self-combusting hay. If there is any moisture inside the hay when it is baled, then the roll will actually start to compost from the inside out. Compost creates lots of heat, which can ignite the dry hay and soon you'll have a fire on your hands. You should check your hay stores regularly for heat or smoking just to make sure.
So how is grass preserved into hay anyway and why is it so frustrating? If you have pastures, then the forest will eventually take over by growing small saplings if it is left unmanaged. When your ungrazed pasture grows a good amount of grass, then you'll want to cut it back to manage it. You have two choices: buy hay equipment or hire someone. I guess a third choice would be to just bush hog it down, but it seems like such a waste of food. The frustrating thing about hiring someone is that everyone's hay in your area comes in at the same time so it's difficult to find someone available. Also, people who are in the business of hay cutting for hire want to take jobs that involve large flat fields meant for hay cutting since they get paid by the bale. If you have only a few unmanaged acres, then it will be very hard to find someone to hire, especially if your pastures are uneven, have old fence lines, or rocks to get in the way. The frustrating thing about buying your own equipment and doing it yourself is that equipment is expensive to buy and expensive to maintain. Something that is used only once or twice a year will certainly develop problems from mice chewing wires, rubber belts drying out, etc. Either way, the basic process of cutting hay is quite frustrating because it all resides on the weather which is very unpredictable. The first thing you depend on is that you get the right amount of rain and sunshine to make the grass grow. Then you need a stretch of nice weather and time to cut the hay. Each type of grass has just the right moment when the hay is ready to be cut. It usually involves just about when the grass is sending up a seed head, but has not matured enough to be woody, tough, and lignified. Cutting it here holds in the nutrients as the cut grass dries, kind of like dehydrating vegetables. I used to think that you just cut whenever the grass looks tall, but this does not make nutritious hay. If you get a dry and hot spell at just the wrong moment, then your grass can quickly go from lush and vegetative to brown and lignified in a matter of days. If you can manage to get your hay cut at the right time, then you need to let it lay in the field for a day or two to dry out. This is when you pray that a rain shower doesn't come! Once the hay is dried, then you need another attachment to rake it up into fluffy wind rows. Then you get to drive all over the fields for a third time with another piece of equipment to roll it all up into bales. The last step is to put the hay spear on the tractor and pick up each bale one by one and move it to the storage area. All in all, hay cutting can take about 5 straight days of bouncing on a hot tractor getting covered in dust and itchy bits of grass. Any surprise storms during that time can ruin your crop and throw your schedule off completely.
If you a looking at buying land, then you should definitely think ahead of time about how you are going to manage the pastures. If you plan on having grazing animals, then consider what you will do if you run out of grass for them to eat. Will you be able to buy hay? What if they can't keep up with the grass? Will you be able to cut hay? If you are not planning on having grazers, then how will you manage the pastures to keep them in grass rather than the woods coming back? No matter what you decide, you should realize that having land means working it some how. And by the way, I sure am glad that our hay is cut, rolled, and stored this week and that ordeal is over...until the next time!
Make a comment!