Mother Nature is in charge of haying. As much as we’d like to believe we may have a smidgen of control, we are wrong at every turn.
First, I’ll explain the difference between hay and straw. Hay, is cut grasses (yes, like a lawn, but different species), forbes, (broadleaf plants that are not grass-like such as golden rod and daisies) and legumes (alfalfa, clover, and vetches most often). Hay is cut at peak growing period, just before flowering, and at peak nutritional value. Straw’s the stems of a grain crop (wheat, barley, oats, etc) and has no nutritional value. It is kind of like a hollow straw. Although animals will eat straw, they generally prefer hay.
With that confusion out of the way, harvesting hay hasn’t changed much in centuries, no, millennia. It’s not much different than a VERY large lawn mower cutting grass, having the sun dry it, and then collecting it into various bundles to feed ruminants over the winter (or any season where the grass isn’t growing). Ask any farmer across the world that has livestock, they will understand the importance of hay during lean times.
The first challenge with haying is weather. What is needed for good hay, is between 4-6 days of sun. The second challenge is getting a contractor to come and cut the hay when it’s needed… I’m going to go on a tangent here too, but please bear with me. The majority of hay is cut for cows and horses. NO matter how you cut it, cows and horses (ponies too) are MUCH bigger than sheep and goats. This means they have bigger mouths, teeth, and can handle hay with thicker stems. Smaller animals, sheep and goats, don’t really like thick, stemmy hay. Their smaller mouths can’t handle it very well. They prefer thinner, softer hay. To get softer hay, it needs to be cut earlier. Harvesting the hay earlier coincides with doing other work on the farm such as planting, weeding, and so much else. Of course, this is also depending on the weather. I go back to getting someone to cut, rake, and bale hay on 4-6 days that are sunny, and available before the hay gets too long and thick for sheep. Anyway, Haying is a stressful time because first cut hay (literally the first time hay is cut) is the beginning of winter feed. Hay literally captures spring and summer sunshine in a way that can be fed to animals over the winter (how cool is that!)
Essentially, when there is a few sunny, dry days that arrive in the spring, hay watch begins. For us, this mean walking the fields (almost) daily to see how the plants are behaving. Prime haying can happen in a weekend, or a couple of months. It all depends on the weather. Once the hay field is long enough, it involves texts and calls back and forth between our hay “guy” and us. When that call comes in that YES, he’s cutting, then begins a chain reaction over the next few days. Everything is put aside temporarily to get the hay in. Prayers to the sun and rain to hold off until the hay is in the barn, if not in the barn, at the very least baled are repeated like a mantra. The chores that were put aside are just don’e after, no matter what time of day or night.
You see, if the cut hay gets rained on, it leaches nutrients back to the soil. Nutrients that the animals need (spreading compost helps put those nutrients back, but that’s another post.) Less nutrients means less needing to find nutrients elsewhere, such as from grains, legumes, and other feedstuffs. That can become quite expensive. Of course buying more hay is an options, and it’s often what we have done. But a bad hay year isn’t necessarily localized. It can affect whole regions. One way or the other hay cost’s money through trucking, or poorer quality hay. Sooooo, the easiest thing, grow your own. BUT, even then, if the weather isn’t co-operating, there’s absolutely nothing one can do…
So, WHY am I telling you all this? Why am I going on about all the challenges of haying for farmers? Well, because our first cut hay is IN!! This year the hay field went from not doing much in the cold evenings, to a couple of feet tall in a week. So, we jumped. Tim spend 2 days bringing hay into the barn. The feeling of relief and joy is kind of overwhelming. I know it sounds silly, but just ask anyone who has livestock. I bet you’ll get the exact same answer.