The most important invention of the last two thousand years was hay. In the classical world of Greece and Rome and in all earlier times, there was no hay. Civilization could exist only in warm climates where horses could stay alive through the winter by grazing. Without grass in winter you could not have horses, and without horses you could not have urban civilization. Some time during the so-called dark ages, some unknown genius invented hay, forests were turned into meadows, hay was reaped and stored, and civilization moved north over the Alps. So hay gave birth to Vienna and Paris and London and Berlin, and later to Moscow and New York.
— Freeman Dyson, physicist
There are at least four good reasons to grow hay:
Hay as a business is complicated and risky, requiring large outlays for equipment and labor, and a steady market. When you're buying, good hay seems scarce and expensive; when you're selling, there always seems to be a glut. There is an Internet Hay Exchange, the Noble Foundation list of hay producers and indexes of summary and regional hay prices, but the rumors about hay going for $200/ton always seem to apply to a different county or the year when you reseeded your haylots and have no hay to cut.
This FAQ is for small farm and property owners who want to cut hay from meadows and fields for their own use or for casual sale. Cutting your own hay, either alone or in a cooperative with neighbors or a custom baler, may not pay down the mortgage, but it lets you control the quality of the feed you give your animals, and if you have access to fields and haying equipment, can cut down on feed bills. Much hay, especially in the West and South, is grown by livestock producers for their own use; if your only source of hay is their excess production, the prices, quality, and availability of your feed will be volatile.
When you cut and bale your own hay, you know the quantity and timing of the fertilizer and lime that has been applied to the fields, whether trace boron was added, the selenium level of the soil, and the palatability of the hay you feed your animals. You know whether the hay was cut early for maximum nutrition, or late for maximum yield, and whether the hay dried properly before it was baled. Unless you take numerous test samples from every load of hay you buy to a lab, or buy consistently from a known and trusted supplier, it is difficult to know the quality of purchased hay to that degree.
The economics of haying are tricky, especially if
you have to clear land for hayfields. If you already have fields that
could be hayed or used in a combined grazing/haying program, and if
you own or have access to the equipment, haying can save feed costs.
Even if you don't feed livestock, in some areas builders and
landscapers pay $3/bale or more for mulch hay used for erosion
control, and pet stores pay high prices for small (16 oz. or 24 oz.)
bales of alfalfa hay for feeding rabbits and other small animals.
What equipment do I need to cut hay?
Traditionally, hay is cut with a sickle-bar mower. A haybine or swather, either pulled by a tractor or a self-powered unit, combines the mower with a reel that stands grass up for the cutter, a conditioner that crushes the stems so the hay will dry faster, and a windrower, which can be set to leave the cut hay in windrows or spread out. Sickle-bar mowers cut like multiple pairs of scissors. They do a good job on grass and legumes, but are vulnerable to stones and stumps.
A newer machine for cutting hay is the disc-mower or discbine, which cuts with small, replaceable, free-swinging knives on whirling discs. The suction of the spinning discs is said to stand up lodged (toppled) hay, and the free-swinging knives are less likely to break on stones. Because the machines are less vulnerable to clogging, you can drive over a field faster with a disc-mower, mowing more hay in less time. Replacing a knife is a quick job, and the knives are cheap. Disc-mowers are messy, and usually have a rubber skirt to confine the splashing juices. Disc-mowers and discbines require more horsepower for a given width of mower than a sicklebar. Disc mowers can also be dangerous on a rough field: the discs spin at ~3000 rpm, fast enough to cut off a steel fence post or to send broken blades or stones out of the mower at deadly speeds. A few manufacturers urge that they be used only on tractors with cabs.
It is also possible to cut hay with a modified brush hog. If one side is removed from the brush hog housing, the cut grass will fly out instead of staying under the housing to be chopped by the whirling blades. Flail mowers are sometimes used to chop hay for quicker drying. A sickle-bar or disc-mower will do a much better job: it is difficult to keep brush hog blades really sharp, the heavy blades hack the hay and knock off leaves, and flail mowers produce short pieces of hay that are harder to rake and bale.
Whether you mow with a 4-foot sickle-bar or a 14-foot discbine, the mowing pattern is almost always the same. Because the mower is offset to the right side of the tractor, you mow clockwise in a spiral toward the center of the field, then mow the last row around the edge of the field counter-clockwise. Most mowers don't do a good job sweeping around a corner, so you usually have to either back up at the corners with the mower raised, or take a big loop around to position the mower for the next leg.
You can't do much to avoid mowing rabbits, snakes, frogs and other creatures that hide in the unmowed hay. Dogs love to chase after mowers and haybines, because so many small animals are scared up by the mower. Unfortunately, long sickle bars and haybines aren't easy to stop or maneuver, and dogs sometimes aren't smart or agile enough to stay out of the way. There are many stories of dogs losing legs to mowers.
Before haybines (mower-conditioners), some farmers used a separate crimper that was run over the field to crush stems and windrow the hay after it was mowed. They still work, and are often available at auctions. Some farmers run a crimper over the windrows after the hay is cut with a haybine; the second crimping can save as much as a day of drying. Crimpers don't do a good job of picking up hay that has been smashed down into the stubble by a tractor tire, so plan your mowing pattern carefully if you're going to follow with a crimper.
If you have long enough windows of good weather,
grass hays dry well without conditioning. In some areas, like the
Intermountain West, horsemen prefer hay that has not been conditioned
because poisonous blister beetles may be crushed into the hay.
How do I adjust and maintain a mowing machine?
Sickle bar mowers can be fussy machines. The usual problems of missed spots and clumping are typically caused by broken or dull knives, gaps between the knives and the guards, misalignment of the bar or the guards, or the wrong combination of tractor and PTO speed.
Dull knives can be sharpened, except for the serrated knives, but it is often easier to replace them. Grinding the sections on a V-shaped grinder works well, or just touch up the edges with a hand-held grinder. Any nicked or broken knives should be replaced: they won't cut well and may cause clumping.
Some newer mowers have knives bolted to the cutter bar. Most older mowers have the knives riveted on. In the shop, the easiest way to remove a riveted knife is to put the knife point-down in a vise and hit the back of the section above each rivet. To remove a knife in the field, rest the edge of the cutter-bar vertically on the top of an anvil-surface (the front weight support of a tractor works well) and strike the exposed back edge of the knife to shear off the rivets. You may need a tap with a punch to drive the stump of the rivet out of the bar. To rivet on a new blade, make sure the rivets are the correct diameter and length (many mowers use two sizes of rivets, for attachments with and without the blade guides). Rest the flush head of the rivet on the anvil top, align the knife, and pound the exposed rivet end flat. It takes more than a few taps to get it right; don't try to set it with the-mother-of-all-hammer-blows.
When the bar is in place, the bottoms of the knives should rest flush on the guards. If they don't, you can adjust the guards and the bar holders, and straighten bent guard fingers, with taps of a hammer, resting the guard on an anvil. Make sure all of the bolts that hold the guards are tight. Short-fingered guards clog less, but offer little protection against stones. For some mowers double cut blades are available. These new blades have two triangles per blade, and the blades are machined to closer tolerances and made of harder steel. They can cut rebar fence posts or tolerate loose gravel without losing their edge.
The outboard end of the cutter bar with the grassboard should be ahead of the inboard end when the tractor is standing still. Drag when you are mowing will bring the bar to a position perpendicular to the direction of travel. The cutting angle of the knives depends on the terrain. On very smooth, level land you can use an aggressive cutting angle. Tilt the bar back on rougher terrain.
There is no one tractor and PTO speed combination that works for all combinations of forage and terrain. You need to be moving fast enough for the forage to topple backwards and for the grassboard to clear a path for your wheel on the next row. In damp grass you may need a slower tractor speed and faster PTO; sparse, dry grass will allow faster tractor speeds.
Moisture in the grass lubricates the mower in use. At the
beginning and end of the haying season, many farmers like to pour
a quart of used motor oil onto the bar for lubrication and rust
What equipment do I need to dry hay?
Drying hay is a race against the weather. A light cutting of grass hay will dry in one good hot day. In 100 degree weather with 40% humidity, even a heavy cutting of 3 tons/acre will dry in one day. In the hot, arrid southwest, hay is sometimes mowed one night and baled the next night. For most areas, those are rare conditions, and heavy cuttings, especially of legumes like alfalfa and clover, are hard to dry when the days are damp, cool, or short.
Some farmers spray special drying chemicals, such as proprionic acid, on their alfalfa as they mow it. Another option is a Gandy box on the baler that dispenses granular alfalfa innoculant; the innoculant prevents mold in hay that is baled with a higher than ideal moisture level. The Gandy boxes are around $300, and the innoculant is about $35 for a 10 lb. bag, roughly enough for 10 tons of hay. The innoculant is like the old time fix of adding salt to the hay. The innoculated hay is palatable but salty; you will need to provide extra water for your livestock.
In areas with perpetual overcast skies, hay is
sometimes dried on temporary tripods made of three limbs laced
together. There are English farmers who insist that tripod hay is the
only really good hay, and in damp counties they're probably right. On
Norwegian hill farms, hay used to be dried on staked wires. Fans and
slatted floors or screened tunnels through the mow can also be used to
dry hay that has been baled or gathered early. Harold Herron of Live
Oak, Florida developed a 50 foot long, 18,000 pound machine that uses
210 magnetron units similar to those used in a common microwave oven
to enable a forage producer to cut, dry and bale in a single day; his
initial price was $150,000 per unit. Chemicals, fans, tripods, and
drying machines aside, most farmers rely on tedders and rakes to aide
the drying of their hay.
A tedder turns hay to expose green surfaces and speed up the drying. The early tedders were ground driven, and gently flipped the hay; newer tedders are driven off the tractor PTO, and do a more violent job of airing and scattering hay. Too much tedding, especially late in the drying, can knock the leaves off alfalfa and clover, losing much of the nutritional content of the hay. If you're buying a tedder, try to get one that matches the width of the windrows left by your mower. A fourteen-foot wide tedder will take in two windrows from a seven-foot mower. If hay is rained on soon after it is cut, running over the field with a tedder will shake the water off the hay and minimize the damage.
If you are blessed with spells of dry weather, and
if you take light cuttings of hay from unfertilized or moderately
fertilized fields, you may not need a tedder. You still need a
hayrake. Before hay is baled, it needs to be raked into windrows that
the baler can follow. The most common rakes are ground-driven
pinwheels or side-delivery rakes. Pinwheel rakes do a terrific job on
long straight rows, but are less effective on corners. Hay is
normally raked twice. On the first run, you rake the hay `out,' which
with most rakes means driving the field in a clockwise spiral. The
tractor and rake end up in the middle of the field. A few hours or
even a day later, you follow the spiral back out, driving in the
opposite direction so the hay is raked `in'. The final raking leaves
room for the baler and tractor outside the last row. You can pull
most hitch rakes with a pickup truck or jeep instead of a tractor,
especially if the ground is smooth, the rows are small, and the hay is
not too thick; using a pickup can be faster and more comfortable than
an open tractor, as long as you watch out for hay winding around an
How do I gather the hay? Is there an alternative to baling?
Before balers, hay was routinely gathered loose, pitched onto a wagon or an elevator (conveyor), and stored loose in the mow (loft) of a barn. The loose hay would continue to dry in the mow, and was fed out by pitching it down to the animals below. Loose hay is a labor-intensive process and takes up a lot of space in the mow. It still works, and there are old-timers and books that can describe how to build a hay-fork, using pulleys, forks and retractable arms to lift an entire wagon-load of hay up into the loft, where a trip rope dumps it. It takes a tractor or a good team to pull the load up.
A newer technique for loose hay is the hay loaders used in Europe. A pick-up header and a chain conveyor can load a wagon as the tractor is driven down a windrow. The small wagons generally carry 1-1.5 tons. A loader can be used to compact the hay when it is dumped in the barn.
You can also stack hay in the fields, in the traditional haystacks of Swiss hill farms and fairy tales, or the enormous haystacks of Montana range country. The bigger the volume of the haystack, the better the hay inside keeps. Haystacks look great, but they're hard to build, the hay is rarely high quality, and tossing a bale in the feeder is probably easier than building a fence around the stack and feeding animals with a pitchfork. In the northern midwest states and southern Canada, as late as the 1940s and 1950s, hay was gathered from raked windrows with a bucking pole, a heavy board up to twenty feet long, with five-foot-long 2×4 teeth projecting from the front and rear. Horses at each end would pull the board down the windrows, dragging the hay into stacks in the field; by reversing the horses the board could be pulled back for another load. Today, range haystacks are built with custom-fabricated beaver-slides; huge tractors with grabbers feed out the hay.
Most small farms today forsake the picturesque haystacks for square balers. The baler can be adjusted so bales weigh anywhere from 35-60 pounds for a `two-string' bale or 80-180 pounds for the big `three-wire' bales favored in California. Wire bales can hold more hay, and wire never rots, but if you are buying a baler remember that wire is more expensive than twine, and the spools of wire weigh close to 90 lbs. and feel even heavier late in the day when a storm threatens and you have to get the hay baled.
With the smaller bales, you can let the bales drop on the field and go around later to pick them up; or bale with a chute behind the baler, so that one or two people on a following wagon can build a compact load of 120-200 bales without bending over to pick up bales; or use a kicker behind the baler to toss the bales into a wagon with sides and a back. A kicker and special wagons make square baling a one-person operation, but the equipment is expensive, and getting the wagon to fill well may require soft, shaggy bales unless you have one person aboard to adjust the load. An alternative to a kicker is a Bale Band-It, a wheel-mounted unit that follows the baler and bands 21 small square bales into a package that can be moved with a loader and pickup or other truck.
If you drop bales in the field, you can pick them up with two- or three-person crews and pickup trucks, low trailers that let you stack from the ground, or sleds low enough to let you sling the bales on with hay hooks. There are also automatic bale stackers that will pick up ~160 small bales and deliver them to your barn in a single operation. Look hard enough at auctions and you may be able to find an old bale-picker that picks up bales onto a pickup-mounted elevator. The Haying Mantis makes picking up a load of medium or large square bales a one-person job.
At the barn, you will probably want an elevator (conveyor) to carry bales up to the mow from your wagons or truck. Some are driven by electric motors, others by the PTO of a tractor. For a large mow, a second elevator rigged horizontally can be a big labor saver. Some farms use a permanently installed horizontal conveyor near the peak of the mow; as the bales move along the elevator, an adjustable diagonal knocks them off into an empty section of the mow. Rigged well, elevators can make unloading a wagon a one-man job. When there is a lot of hay to be brought in and threatening weather, even a mechanized setup is no substitute for lots of hands and an extra tractor or big pickup (be careful with an import or 1/2 ton pickup on loaded hay wagons) to haul wagons back and forth from the baler to the barn.
You will find no end of theories about the right way to stack bales in a mow. Whatever pattern you use, it is a good idea to stack bales on their sides, with the stems of the cut hay running up-and-down, which allows maximum convection ventilation. The greener the hay, the looser it should be packed, to allow cooling and curing without danger of mildew or combustion. If you are stacking bales on the ground, you can cut down on losses by using pallets under the first row, or at least a layer of dry straw.
An alternative to storage in a barn is temporary
structures, like the white canvas portable garages, or to put square
bales in Growturf bags, which come in diameters from 53-inches to
72-inches. The larger bags will hold 25 small square bales. These
black 5-mil bags can safely store hay on pallets in the winter months.
There is also compression
baling in poly bags, using a vertical baler that can produce 35-60
pound bales of alfalfa at 5 bales/minute.
Round bales are a one-person operation. Years ago there were round balers that produced bales of 60-100 pounds. Today, most round balers produce bales of 600-2000 pounds. The bales are either left in the field until they are used, sometimes covered with a machine-applied plastic sleeve and lifted off the ground on old pallets or tires, or they can be moved to a covered storage area with a bale spike on the bucket-loader or three-point hitch of a tractor. Round bales are labor-saving, both in baling and feeding, but even with precautions in mowing and raking, but it takes care to make and store really good hay in round bales. If the hay is to be stored outside, using net instead of twine to wrap the hay will confine spoilage to those areas where the hay touches the ground. Recent experiments suggest that the cost of constructing inside storage for round bales can be amortized quickly by the reduction in waste; an alternative, for beef cattle, is to spray the bales with beef tallow. For animals that trample their hay, like sheep, round bales require some thought in designing feeders, or a special chain saw blade that will cut the bale into smaller wafers.
Round bales should be stacked horizontally if they are left outside,
so rain water will run off instead of soaking in. The moisture should
be down to 15-16% before they are placed end-to-end. Moisture
migrates out through the cut ends of the bale while it is curing, so
the ends need to be exposed. If you don't have a moisture tester,
assume the bales will need 2-3 weeks before storage end-to-end.
Drying after baling is even more important if the bales will be stored
What about a little meadow of less than an acre?
A small meadow can be hayed with no more equipment than a scythe, a hand forage rake (wooden, with wood pins for teeth), and a pitchfork to gather the loose hay on a cart, pickup, or wagon. Cutting hay with a scythe takes skill: an old-timer can show you how to adjust the scythe and keep it sharp, and how to cut hay without exhausting yourself. For a slightly larger meadow, a walk-behind sickle-bar mower would do a good job of cutting hay. Some European manufacturers make small two- and four-wheeled tractors with a sickle bar cutter in front, rather than extending to the right, which makes them ideal for smaller fields, and excellent small sickle bars (4-6 feet), disc mowers, and small hayrakes, like a 3pt mounted pinwheel. See the Kverneland and Tonutti pages for some useful addresses and examples of smaller implements. The Agriquip pages feature round balers, disc-mowers, and other implements scaled for smaller tractors.
If you have too much hay for a forage rake, you could gather loose
hay with a home-built buckrake on a bucket loader or three-point
hitch. Books of older farm implements can provide ideas, or you
might be able to adapt an older horse- or mule-drawn dump rake by
shortening the drawbar, tinkering with the hitch, and rigging a
trip string that you can operate from the tractor seat (unless you
have a willing 12-year old you can plunk on the rake seat to trip
the rake at the end of each windrow). Northern Hydraulics sells a
miniature pinwheel rake (advertised for dethatching lawns) small
enough to pull with a lawn tractor. If you have a cooperative
neighbor, you might be able to cut and rake your meadow when he is
haying his fields, and arrange custom baling of your meadow. Many
custom operators are reluctant to harvest a small meadow, unless
proximity to other haylots or some favor tips the balance.
How much does it cost to have a custom operator harvest my hay?
Prices and arrangements for custom operators vary by region and terrain. Typical prices are $10.00-20.00/acre to mow and rake hay; $7.50-10.00/bale for round-baling, depending on the size of bales and whether the bales are twine or net-wrapped; $.50-1.00/bale for square-baling; $1.00/bale to move and stack round bales.
Another popular option is to go shares with the custom baler. The exact arrangements vary, but 50-50 shares are typical: the owner (or renter) of the land gets half the hay, the custom operator gets the other half. Who fertilizes the land or reseeds is negotiated. You can often negotiate a more favorable arrangement if you help with the haying.
Remember that most custom operators have their own
acreage and other haying committments. If the custom operator is
over-committed or not conscientious about your hay, you may end up
with hay that gets rained on, baled too early or too late, or not
harvested at all. Even the most conscientious custom operator can run
into a spell of bad weather: when a good weather window finally
arrives and the custom operator has the choice of third cutting on 100
acres of alfalfa or second cutting on your 3 acres of native grass
hay, guess which gets done?
How much is the equipment going to cost me to buy?
New haying equipment is expensive. If you're handy with tools, or buy carefully, you don't need new equipment for occasional haying on a few fields. Many farms have part of the equipment they need, like a tractor big enough for a baler. A 25hp tractor can run a small PTO-driven square baler such as a JD 14T. An even smaller tractor, or in some terrain a pickup truck or jeep, can pull a gasoline-engine baler, and many Amish farmers do well with horse-drawn gasoline-powered balers. Larger balers, and especially those with kicker attachments, require more horsepower.
If you're planning to pull wagons behind the baler, especially on hills, you will need a more powerful and heavier tractor. A live-PTO is a good idea on a tractor driving a PTO-powered baler. You can usually clear a clogged baler by stepping on the clutch and letting the baler catch up, or if the clog is too great, by backing up, but if the PTO stops when you press in the clutch, it may take a full-scale dismantling to clear the baler.
Used rakes, tedders, and balers are often available at auctions or at implement dealers. You may find some odd-balls that are no longer made, like three-point hitch side-delivery rakes and ground-driven tedders. They will often do a good job, as long as essential spare parts, like rake teeth and knotter parts for the baler, are available. Even if you're an experienced mechanic, it is probably a good idea to try to get the manual with a used baler, to try it on some loose hay before you buy, and to examine it carefully for wear on the knotter, the flywheel bearings, and the knife. Get the owner or another experienced user to explain the adjustments. Old balers are often sensitive to build-up of dust, seeds, stems, and string shavings around the knotter; stopping and cleaning it out with a whisk broom every 100 bales or so will often prevent a breakdown later. Other areas to watch for are keeping the twine and hay knives sharp, and filing any rough edges on twine guides that can chafe or weaken the twine. Chafed or old twine not only produces weak bales, but is rough on some knotters. If the bale chamber is rusty or rough, the bales will be uneven with varying twine tension; chamber liners are available for corroded bale chambers. There are also special paints which can be painted over rust and convert it to a hard, slippery black surface. If the baler has been used with a kicker, or on hilly country, check the attachment points for the tongue on the bale case.
Haybines generally require a tractor with auxiliary hydraulics, and many sickle-bar mowers only fit a particular model of tractor because they require some special link to the drawbar or three-point hitch to control the raising and lowering of the cutter bar. A sickle-bar mower can be a versatile implement for trimming fence rows and clipping pastures as well as mowing hay. Make sure you can get replacement knives and stone guards for the mower.
Used disc-mowers and discbines are subject to wear and slop in the gears inside the cutterbar. When they are worn, new knives may touch one another at speed on rotor pairs that do not counter-rotate. The work-around for this problem is to use an old knife, with a worn tip, on the drive rotor (the one that rotates in the same direction as the rotor next to it).
Used hay wagons (hayracks) are also available, especially if you're willing to replace worn tires and rebuild wooden beds. It is not a good idea to save money by putting auto tires instead of heavy-duty implement tires on a wagon: a load of hay can weigh six tons.
Cost? You can probably find a serviceable used
baler for $500 to $2500, depending on your mechanical skills, the area
of the country, and the season when you shop the auctions and
implement dealers. A used sickle-bar mower could be as cheap as $200;
new ones cost $1000 and up. A used hayrake can be had for $500.
Specialized implements, like the balers used to create tiny bales for
the petstore market, may not be available used.
What are the annual costs of haying?
Annual maintaintenance costs depend on the condition and age of your equipment, your skill as a mechanic, and the availability of shop and tool facilities. Other annual costs are predictable: baling twine or wire; cutter knives and rake teeth, which break frequently on stony fields; wear and tear on tires and wagons; and fuel to cut and bale hay, prepare fields, and to spread fertilizer or lime. The following fuel use table assumes typical soils and terrain, speeds of 4-5 mph except corn silage harvesting at half that speed, and makes no provision for travel to and from fields. Your mileage may vary.
(This table does not reproduce well in text browsers.)
|FIELD OPERATION||Fuel Consumption (gallons/acre)|
|Spreading dry fertilizer||0.20||0.15|
|Powered rotary tiller||2.30||1.60|
|Tandem disk, plowed field||1.00||0.70|
|Tandem disk, cornstalks||0.70||0.50|
|No-till planter (fluted coulter)||0.70||0.50|
|Corn silage harvester||5.20||3.60|
Hard work and patience. You can use aggressive or passive techniques for land-clearing. Once the field is clear of stones and stumps — which may require a bulldozer with a grubber blade or a backhoe, and hours of stone-picking — do a soil test and add lime as needed to bring the pH up to whatever your planned hay crop requires. Lime migrates slowly in soil, so adding more than 2.5 tons/acre may require a year or so of alternate crops before the pH is at the required level. Heavy applications of lime should be disced in; surface application initially affects only the top 1/2 inch of soil. Once the pH is where you want it, you can either disc the field thoroughly before seeding, or kill the existing vegetation with Round-UpTM (or 2,4-D or atrazine) and plant no-till.
A heavy drag behind the disc harrow will help level the field. For areas of the country where the hayfields must be irrigated, the efficiency of irrigation will depend on the care put into leveling the field. Large fields may require laser leveling equipment, a theodolite, or a leveling plane. In dry areas, steep grades may cause washouts of seed from heavy rains after seeding.
To control weeds, it sometimes works well to plant an interim cover crop, like buckwheat, oats, rye, or dwarf rape that you can later disc in, perhaps with a heavy application of manure, before you seed the hay. A dense stand of buckwheat will choke out weeds that would overwhelm a hay seeding, and add to the tilth of your soil when you disc it in. Temporary crops like rape, turnips, rye, or oats can provide pasture for animals or a quick cutting of hay while they're helping get the field ready for seeding hay. In some areas, broadleaf herbicides (2,4-D) are sprayed on young oats to control weeds.
On a disced field, after you've applied the needed fertilizer, a Brillion or other heavy seeder will do the best job with small seeds like alfalfa or timothy; a drill will work well with larger seeds. If you can't borrow a seeder, you can broadcast from a hand-carried Cyclone seeder for small seeds (alfalfa, timothy, orchard-grass) or a three-point-hitch fertilizer spreader for larger seeds like oats. Increase the application rate over the seed bag recommendation if you are broadcasting. Rolling broadcast seed will probably provide the highest germination rate. If you don't have a roller, disc large seeds lightly after broadcasting; a pass with a drag or branches will cover small seeds.
For no-till seeding, you may be able to borrow the needed machine from a local agricultural extension or NRCS office. It is important to follow the instructions for early mowing or grazing to control weeds after no-till seeding.
In some areas, fall seedings work well, and provide
hay the next spring. In general, planting time is site and crop
specific. Talk to knowledgeable local people, including extension or
NRCS agents and other farmers, to find what works in
your area. Some farmers like to plant oats as a cover drop with
spring or late summer seedings. The fast-growing oats are supposed to
keep down weeds. Be sure to inoculate legume seeds to increase the
nitrogen-fixing ability of the alfalfa or clover.
What kind of hay should I plant?
Depends on location, climate, soil, and the intended use. Some general observations:
Extension and soil conservation service agents can often suggest a
good seed mix for your area and soil, or you may be able to find
information for your area on the Forage
Information System. Unless you have a good reason to do
otherwise, you may want to follow the lead of your neighbors. If they
grow mostly orchard grass, it may be because timothy doesn't do as
well in the area, or because local buyers aren't interested in timothy
hay. Trying to beat the odds — alfalfa in a heavy acidic soil —
How much should I fertilize hayfields?
Depends on what kind of hay you're growing and how high a yield you want. Each cutting of hay robs nutrients from the soil that need to be replenished if productivity is to be maintained. Fertilized hay is also higher in total nutrients, and feeding your animals fertilized hay can avoid some mineral deficiencies. A soil test from a state agricultural extension office or university lab will tell you the exact blend of NPK and application rate to achieve best yields on your soil, and whether you need to add lime or micro-nutrients. You can also study the existing forage to identify nutrient deficiencies in your forage and fields. You can also plan fertilization schedules based on the expected forage yield. If you buy your fertilizer in bulk from a blending plant, you can get the exact mix you need, and save the extra cost and inconvenience of paper-bagged fertilizer. You can save money by knowing the size of your fields and ordering the right amount of fertilizers and lime. If your fields have not been surveyed, try calculating the area of a field; or if you have access to a transit or theodolite, you can use the Survey Worksheet.
Grass hays need plenty of nitrogen. For highest yields, fertilize grass hay twice, when growth begins (early spring in the east, late fall in California) and again after the first cutting. Typical New England applications for grass hay would be 60-30-40. In the South, highly productive hybrid bermudagrass like the World Feeder may receive 100-60-90 in the spring, then 100 lbs. of N/acre after each of four cuttings, and 90 lbs of K/acre in July. Soil tests are the only way to determine the optimum fertilization for your own fields; make sure the testing lab understands what hay crop you have planted. Excess fertilizer is a waste of money, and too much nitrogen leads to lodging — leggy hay that lies down and is hard to mow. For `generic' hay from native grasses you may be able to get by with no fertilizer at all: yields and nutrition will be lower, and may continue to decline, but you probably won't need a tedder to dry the hay, and lower yields may suit your available labor pool and hay needs.
For legume hays (alfalfa, clover, birds-foot trefoil), you can usually get by with one application of fertilizer per year, typically a blend like 0-40-90. Alfalfa and clover often profit from the addition of small amounts of boron (~9 lbs/acre); because the amounts are small, the boron should be carefully mixed into the fertilizer before spreading. Mixed legume/grass hay (timothy and alfalfa, orchard grass and clover) is usually fertilized to favor the legume. Again, use soil tests and recommendations specific to the crop and your area.
Manure is good for a hayfield and will cut down on
fertilizer bills. If you don't have a manure spreader, you may be
able to borrow one once a year when you clean out your barn or
barnyard, or hire a farmer to spread your manure. Small ground-driven
manure spreaders are often available at auctions and used implement
dealers; two manufactuers of new small spreaders are Mill Creek
Manufacturing (717.656.3050) and Fuerst (800.435.9630). After the
final cutting, or during a dormant period (winter in the east, summer
in California), is a good time to spread manure on a hayfield. Soil
tests immediately after you have spread manure won't be accurate.
When do I cut the hay? How many cuttings a year can I get?
The quality of hay, particularly the all-important protein content, is determined in large measure by the stage of growth when the grass or legumes are cut. For most hay, the later in the bloom you cut, the greater the yield, but the lower the protein content and palatability. Alfalfa hay can range from 20% protein in a late vegetative state (before bloom) to 11% protein at the end of the bloom. Timothy can go as high as 18% protein just before bloom to as low as 6-7% protein in late bloom hay. For mulch hay or livestock on maintenance rations, a late cutting is fine. For high-production dairy animals, late-term or lactating sheep, or hard-working draft animals, you may want the highest possible protein, which means early cut hay. Unfortunately, weather and other commitments don't always let you cut hay at the optimum time.
In most areas of the country, grass hay can be cut twice, sometimes three times, per year. The first cutting generally has the largest yield. Some animals, like sheep, prefer the tender stems of second or third cutting hay. When a haybine or conditioner is used, first cutting hay may be just as palatable as second cutting. Alfalfa can often be cut four times, even when it is not irrigated. The last cutting should either be after a hard frost, or well before the first frost, so the plants have time to push nutrition into the root system for the winter.
If you have the option, cutting forage in the afternoon will result in a
higher sugar and complex-carbohydrate content in the cured hay, which
makes the hay more palatable and may incease the nutritional level of
the hay. The disadvantage is that you need an extra day of curing
before the hay can be baled.
How do I beat the weather?
Pray, and watch the weather channel or pick up weather charts off one of the Internet sites. There are long range forecasts and in some areas, the NOAA weather broadcasts include special haying advisories. In many parts of the country, weather systems provide windows — a period of 3-5 days of dry, crisp weather between two fronts. The beginning of a dry window is the time to cut your hay. Sometimes folk wisdom, like the feel of a coming northwester in an arthritic knee, can predict haying weather better than the charts.
Given a choice, waiting for dry weather and cutting the hay beyond its peak is better than the risk of getting hay rained on. Rain is not always the ultimate disaster for hay. Little harm comes to hay that is rained on right after it is cut, then quickly dried with a tedder. If your hay gets rained on late in the drying cycle, either feed it out immediately, sell it to a neighbor who can feed it out immediately, bale it for mulch hay, or chop it in place with a rotary mower (brush hog).
If you are worried about rain, it may be better to cut your hay with a
sickle bar instead of a haybine. Hay that is not crushed and not in
windrows will suffer less damage from rain.
How do I tell good hay?
Sending samples to a lab will give you exact protein and TDN measures. Failing a lab, good hay smells and looks good. The best grass hay is usually silvery green in color. Brown hay was probably cut too late or dried too long, and will be lacking in vitamin E and other nutrients. Green hay is too wet to store in a barn. It can be fed out immediately, but in a barn it will rot, mildew, or possibly start a fire. Sheep and goats find alfalfa hay more palatable if it is not too stemmy, and especially if the stems have been crushed with a haybine or conditioner. Good legume hay is not so dry that the leaves fall off at first touch, and should not have been raked or tedded so hard that the leaves are gone.
The smell of good hay depends on the grasses and legumes in the mix; hay that smells dusty, mildewy, or over-ripe is probably no good. When hay is curing in the barn, you can and should test it by putting your hand deep inside bales. It should generate warmth for several days after it is baled; excessive heating is a danger signal. Ruminants on maintenance rations can tolerate less-than-perfect hay, although dusty hay may cause respiratory problems; equines have low tolerance for bad hay.
Before you bale hay, pick up a bunch and twist it tightly in your fingers. If it is too dry to hold the twisted shape, it is probably too dry to be really good hay; it may be better to bale it the following morning after a dew. If it feels wet when you twist it, it is too wet to bale. If there are trees around your hayfield, the hay on the outside rows may dry slower than the inner rows. Test different rows, and if the outside rows are too wet to bale, start baling a few rows in, then return to the outside rows after you've baled the rest of the field.
If you are buying hay, you probably want to examine and smell
samples from inside a few bales. Check bales from different
loads, or different ends of a load. Everyone who sells hay isn't
unscrupulous, but even innocent mistakes can burn down a barn or
leave your livestock sick.
How do I feed hay to my stock?
For animals that do not waste their hay, like cattle or horses, you may need no feeder at all. Just scatter flakes of hay on clean ground. Many horse breeders prefer to use triangular hay feeders in stalls, or hay bags. And in muddy feedlots, cattle will need feeders with slots to hold the hay off the ground.
For finicky animals like sheep or goats that will not eat trampled hay, unless you can feed the hay on clean snow, you will need a feeder to keep the hay off the ground. Hay nets that work for horses are dangerous with sheep or goats, because their small heads can get tangled in the netting. The Midwest Plan Service has plans for hay feeders. Some common designs, like the pentagonal sheep feeders in many books, allow sheep to pull the hay out too easily, leading to waste and hay leaves in fleeces. If you're designing your own feeder, there are several design tricks you might consider.
Round bales also require special feeders. On clean snow, you can unroll a bale and allow the animals to eat in from the edges. There are special devices for the back of a pickup that will unroll the bale automatically. An alternative is to feed unrolled bales on pasture with an electric wire to control access. When the area becomes muddy or the stock has eaten as far as they can reach under the wire, you move the wire. Without an electric wire to control access, you generally need a feeder that will collapse as the animals eat in from the edge. Use caution if you are designing and building your own. The pressure of several animals pushing on the sides require a strong fabrication, and the design must make sure an animal will not get caught in the openings and crushed.
Is there an alternative to get good feed from a field or meadow?
In many areas, unpredictable weather and labor shortages make it tough to bring in good hay, particularly in the spring. An alternative is haylage, usually done with first-cutting alfalfa. The alfalfa is mowed, conditioned, and windrowed by a haybine, then left in the field to dry for anywhere from a few hours to a day. A forage-chopper (a corn chopper with a haylage head) is then run over the field to chop and gather the partially dry hay. Stored in a silo, lined pit or silage bag as haylage, it makes nutritious feed. Haylage is probably only workable if you or a nearby custom operator has the equipment.
An alternative to silage is to make baleage. A round baler, or a heavy-duty medium square-baler is used to bale hay after it has wilted for a day. The bales are then wrapped with a bale-wrapper, which is either 3ph mounted or freestanding. Traditionally, the bales are wrapped in several layers of plastic material. The wet hay cures anaerobically inside the sealed plastic, and makes very good feed — if they are well sealed. If the haylage is too dry, the stems can poke through even multiple layers of plastic wrapping, leaving a mess. The heavy wet bales are hard on balers, and are delicate to store and move. Baleage bales can be moved with a spike through the flat side after the bale has cured, which generally takes two weeks; the spike hole should be carefully sealed after the bale is moved. Grabbers can also be used to move the bales, if they are used carefully so the plastic covering does not tear. The bales should not be stored on stiff stubble, or allowed to roll against one another. The slightest rip in the plastic will allow the baleage to mold; unlike a large silage pit or silo, the total volume of the bag is relatively small, so a small leak spoils a large percentage of the feed. The bales can be stored outside on pallets or tires, if adequate precautions are taken against rodent damage. Storing indoors or close enough for the barn cats to patrol may be safer. In very cold weather, the internal heat of the bale may not prevent it from freezing, which can make feeding difficult.
Some of the difficulties with silage and baleage are addressed by vacuum-packed silage, which utilizes long-cut grasses and legumes stored on the ground and covered with a plastic sheet and a dirt seal. This is often the lowest cost of all harvesting methods and can produce the highest quality feed. A vacuum pump hooked to a perforated tube buried in the stack is used to remove excess air from the cut grasses for a quick cure into silage, bypassing most of the butyric acid production, and yielding high quality without additives. The system seems to work best when the grasses and legumes are cut long and direct cut into a forage wagon. The LaceratorTM forage harvester is custom designed for higher throughput with this system, but any green chopper that will cut long, condition as needed, and throw directly into a wagon without augers and separate blowers can work well. An illustrated book on vacuum-packed silage is available from the e.m. barnes foundation.
Another alternative to dedicated hayfields is to
combine a cutting of hay with extensive pasturing of the fields. Many
farms have too much forage in the spring flush, followed by shortages
during the dry months. If your pastures are clear of stones and
stumps, you can take a cutting of hay in the spring, then use the
fields as a pasture in the dry months. In some areas you can cut down
on hay and manure handling by setting aside a field or two for succession grazing to
extend the normal pasture season.
What do I do about weeds and pests like gophers and woodchucks?
When a stand of grass and legumes is well-fertilized, properly limed, and cut frequently enough, the desirable grasses and legumes will crowd out most weeds. The few weeds that persist are usually controlled by frequent mowing. When the field has more weeds than useful forage, it may be time for renovation.
For persistent, deep-rooted weeds like bindweed, you may need spot or broad application of herbicides. There are many alternatives to contract spraying.
Gophers, woodchucks and other burrowing mammals can raise havoc with a hayfield. Gopher tunnels can reroute irrigation water, and woodchuck holes and gopher tunnels can break axles on tractors or wagons. Poison, auto exhausts, or traps are effective on gopher tunnels. Your State APHIS Animal Control Officer (a Federal agency) may be able to arrange to sell you sulphur bombs for half the cost of the same items at a feed store. A rifle with a scope is probably the best antidote for woodchucks. If you don't want to shoot them yourself, ask around at gunshops; there may be a varmint hunter who will be eager to do the job for you. If the varmints have already left the surface of the field too rough for equipment, a heavy drag (sections of railroad track are good) will shave down the mounds; using a three-point hitch seeder on the tractor while you drag can reseed the bad areas in a single pass.
Serious insect infestations, such as grasshoppers,
can consume a substantial portion of a hay crop. There are commercial
insecticides available. If you do not like the idea of feeding hay
that has been sprayed to your stock, or if you plan to graze animals
on the field and are wary of the effects of spray, some alternatives
are to put turkeys or ducks out on the field. They gobble up bugs
(they will also gobble up alfalfa buds if they are put out at the
wrong time!). There are also garlic-based sprays that supposedly
deter bugs with no lasting insecticide residues. Try 1.800.327.1357
(Robstown, TX) or 1.800.887.5251 (Bokeelia, FL) for more information
on garlic sprays.
Are there any good books about haying?
For a more detailed approach to operating haying machinery, preparing fields, selecting appropriate hay crops, and storing and feeding hay, there are the superb guides to farming machinery from John Deere and a host of publications from the various state branches of the agricultural extension service.
For the history and the feel of haying, try Verlyn
Klinkenborg, Making Hay (Nick Lyons Books, 1986) and
Steven R. Offbeck, The Haymakers: a Chronicle of Five Farm
Families (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000).
Is making my own hay really worth all the work?
Even if you only cut a small meadow and store the hay loose for a
pet animal, completing the cycle of old-fashioned farming —
manure from the animals fertilizes the hayfield, hay from the
field feeds the animal — is rewarding. If you own or can borrow
the equipment, and if family, neighbors, and friends add up to the
needed labor for timely baling and storage of hay — haying your
land or rented land can provide excellent feed for your livestock
at a good price (especially if you're paying $6-8/bale for spring
hay), the pleasures of shared hard work with friends, and the
rewards of a cold beer or dinner after bringing in hundreds or
thousands of bales of good hay. If you have to hire a bulldozer
or backhoe to clear the land, buy expensive equipment to do the
haying, can't find the helping hands when you need them, and have
terrible luck with weather — haying may not be right for you.
Who wrote this FAQ?
The author is Ronald Florence, PhD, a novelist and historian who raised Cotswold sheep in Stonington, Connecticut. Additional information was provided by
This document is copyright 1994-2002 by Ronald Florence. You are welcome to print or make a copy in electronic form for personal use or link this page to your WWW page, as long as this copyright notice is not removed or altered. Please do not copy this FAQ or any portion of it to a WWW page, or print it in any publication, or sell it, by itself or as part of another work, without the express written permission of the author; this restriction includes but is not limited to print, digital media, and electronic transmission.
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