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Looking for Mr. Goodbale

January 25, 2016

Hay.  Can you think of a subject on a farm or farmstead that evokes more images and opinions than hay?  Even people who don’t own livestock have an opinion on hay.  I know my life pretty much evolves around hay.  Growing it, making it, putting it up, feeding it out, or in other words worrying about hay all year round.

We are fortunate to be able to make our own hay on our land, and I have to honestly say I think that is as important as growing your own food.  You are what you eat eats…or something like that.  I also understand not everyone can make their own hay, so I thought maybe a few tips and thoughts on hay from our perspective might be helpful.

Yeah, I remember that day. 96F and you're in the middle of the barn. The outside of the stack is important. The middle? Not so much.

Yeah, I remember that day. 96F and you’re in the middle of the barn. The outside of the stack is important. The middle? Not so much.

Finding good hay can be troublesome.  It never ceases to amaze that many times you hear folks exclaiming about diversity on many fronts.  But hay?  No siree, usually the quest is for monoculture.  Alfalfa or Orchard grass are the two coveted hay monocultures here in the Pacific Northwest, I can’t say for other parts of the country.  What our cows like best is a diverse pasture to graze on, and they like hay made from those diverse pastures equally well.

Here is one of those diverse pastures being cut for hay.

Here is that hay right now.  Chock full of nutrients by the way of weeds herbs and grasses in different stages of growth. Have you ever heard the term herbal ley? Hay isn’t just grass, or it shouldn’t be.  The more types of plants in your pasture the better the pasture and the hay made from that pasture will be.  Joel Salatin calls his pastures salad bars and that’s what you should strive for too.  A common idea floating around is that you can just take a piece of land and turn it into a good pasture by buying the “correct” seed, planting and then you’re done.  Expectations like that will set you up for a hard fall.  Certainly if, (insert big IF here) you tended that pasture like your tomato plants you might get a decent crop for a year or two, but the land, or rather your soil’s makeup and how you treat it, and how it’s been treated in the past will dictate what happens there.  I would place a bet that if the plants you seek (in my case legumes and dandelions) to see amongst your grasses would be there if the growing conditions are right.  After the initial seeding and propping up, the same old pasture will reemerge and the new seeds will have retreated because the climate they need is not there. Our best pasture/hayfield has not been planted in my lifetime.  I’m old.  Going on six decades.  It bears repeating, our best pasture/hayfield has not been planted in my lifetime.

My husband and I mistakenly worked up a pasture to reseed it to…pasture.  At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do, we wanted better pasture and hay.  All the advice given to us was: plow, disc, prepare a fine seedbed (like a garden) and plant a pasture mix and things would be all hunky dory.  Well, we learned a lot.  Mostly that we would never do that again.  Taking old sod and turning it into basically dust takes a lot of time and it’s very frustrating, especially if you’re wanting to turn it into sod again.  Duh.  You buy the seed, you don’t want to waste it and everyone is telling you that you must plant seed.  People like Gabe Brown and his cover crop cocktails hadn’t come along yet, so we plodded along.  That pasture today is pretty good, but it wasn’t bad when we started tearing it up either.  If only we knew then what we know now.

At about that same time, we were starting to see a shift in the hay fields that we custom hayed for folks.  It had been about 20 years since most the working farms in our area had gave way to hobby farm subdivisions.  The absence of livestock was telling.  I am here to tell you that hay in the vaguest sense is tall grass that has been cut, cured, and then baled after it is dried. Good hay is much different.  It’s not just color, because you can make the best “hay” out of poverty grasses and forbs and it will remain greenish when dried.  You have to keep in mind that hay is a step down from fresh grass if you were to look at it from the cow’s perspective.  Not unlike the freezer stash of frozen broccoli from your fall garden that pales in comparison to fresh summer broccoli right from the garden.  So, long story short, poverty grasses make even worse hay than the pastureland they grow on.  We’ve made hay for folks on fields that were so weak that you could hardly rake enough grass into a windrow for baling it was so thin.  You’d get lost trying to find enough cut grass to rake up.  That’s thin.  The sad part?  They all thought they had good hay to sell because it was baled into a bale form and it used to be a hayfield.  And it was organic because organic means to most people that you don’t do anything and you have an organic product.  That thinking couldn’t be further from the truth.

How can you tell if your grassland is good enough for nutritious hay?

♥  How long since livestock have been on the property?  Livestock for the most part even mismanaged will at least be replacing some of what they take in the form of manure and urine.

♥  What plants grow there?  Get a good book and identify what you have.  Weeds of the West is a great book for identifying grasses and weeds on the west coast.  Short of a buying a book, take a look and see what’s there.  Oxeye daisy, Queen Anne’s Lace, Sweet Vernal Grass?  You’ve got a lot of work to do.  Those plants are the last dying gasp before trees set in and real succession takes over.  In other words, poor soil in need of lots of attention unless you just want to tip toe through the tulips with flowers in your hair.  Each area will have their own set of weeds.  These are the ones that we see in old mined out hay fields around here.  When someone calls us and asks us to buy their hayfield we go look.  And most of the time we decline.  The sad thing is that the more they bale that hay and sell it from their land the more they are depleting their own place.  Spraying herbicides isn’t the answer either, if the fertility was there to support a higher plane of nutritious plants they would be there.  But it’s hard to sell the idea of the farmer’s footsteps being the best fertilizer.  Humans have to “do” and “fix” something or they don’t feel right.

We have our bad spots too in the different pastures, due to how the land has been used, how much sun the pasture receives, or if it’s on a slope or steep hill where possibly the soil had been eroded in years past when crops were planted.  With all that in mind I pull the best hay for Jane the milk cow.  The beef cows get some of the best, and all the rest.  She needs more nutrition to make her milk and keep her weight at an acceptable level.  She is genetically programmed to sacrifice body condition in order to make the milk, so I cannot short her or lower her production by feeding her less in volume or nutrition or she will lose weight because she is still going produce milk.

Usually the Jane Sort happens in the summer when we haul the hay, but if I come across a particular bale or stash of bales in the stack that are extra good, I set them aside for her. I tell you all this because I want you to understand that good pastures and good hay fields are more a function of time spent managing at different stages of the year than they are how much you spent on seed and tractor fuel.

It’s probably cliché to say good hay or pasture is journey.  It seems that the quest for good pasture is never-ending, but satisfying along the way.

Next post:  (okay don’t laugh I will write it soon) Now that you’ve got your hay, how do you keep from wasting it?






30 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2016 2:39 pm

    Hey there, I am the first to confess I know nothing (okay, maybe very little) about farming, and I love your posts: the pictures (IG) and Jane and the dogs and HD and the barn cats. Ad the calves. And your quilts, pie, dinner menus. Squash.

    Been following for years, since I first had urban chickens and a few raised beds. I love finding out how ignorant I am. I love all the different feelings your writing evokes and riding all those different waves; sometimes it’s hard with the reality of life; and ain’t it always? Thanks for the endless pasturing instructions, and hay updates. Thank you so much for writing.

    • January 25, 2016 3:35 pm

      Well, thank you ma’am! I compose lots of blog posts in my head, and then something else comes along that seems more pertinent. And then none get posted. Thanks again for reading!

  2. Carrie permalink
    January 25, 2016 3:12 pm

    Jane looks as though she is saying “Butting the bag that feeds you? How dare you young man, you just mind your table manners!” 🙂

    Trust you are all keeping well, and Jane too of course.

    • January 25, 2016 3:32 pm

      Carrie, she is, Raylan is also know as the Leech! She calls for him and then wishes she hadn’t. Kids you know 😉 That’s a dated photo too, he is much bigger now, or should I say leechier.

      All of us are still kicking 😉

  3. arte permalink
    January 25, 2016 3:42 pm

    So do you pasture your cattle on the hay field sometimes to enrich the soil ?

    • January 25, 2016 4:24 pm

      arte, yes, we graze it once in the spring and make second cut-like hay later when the weather is better. We also rotate the hay ground so we aren’t making hay in the same pasture year after year. Composted deep bedding is spread after the hay is cut.

  4. January 25, 2016 3:51 pm

    Unfortunately we have to buy all our hay. We always try to find a good assortment and try to buy it as locally as we can. This year there was none to be had but we ended up getting it hauled in cheaper from a LONG ways off and it is some of the best hay we’ve ever had as far as cattle liking it. Around here we try to avoid the stuff that is grown with chemical fertilizer as cattle just don’t seem to like it as well (they must know something) and will more readily much down on the drylands variety as the irrigated….but then I think it has something to do with fertilizer again as most farmers that spend the big buck on water want to make sure they get more tons to the acre and usually fertilize.

    • January 25, 2016 4:25 pm

      Linda, I wish there was affordable hay to buy around here, it either has to be trucked in (expensive) from the eastside of the mountains or if it’s on our side of the mountains the quality varies so much but the price never does. Sounds like you guys got a good deal.

  5. January 25, 2016 5:08 pm

    Wonderful post, thank you. I’d like nothing better than to have the acreage, equipment and time to put up my own hay on my own land, for all the reasons you do. Quality is so very important to me, I hate leaving it to someone else. I’m working on a post about hay too, from the perspective of one who must buy it in. I appreciate the time, effort and craft that’s involved, it is not an easy thing, to make good hay. Not all hay is good, that’s for sure, but you can’t tell the haymaker that, oh no! 🙂

    • January 25, 2016 5:29 pm

      TD, your post will be a good go along with my next post about feeding and quality. Can’t wait to read it. Stay warm!

  6. Bee permalink
    January 25, 2016 6:18 pm

    The other thing that happens as you get older (I’ve got about eight or nine years on you, Nita) is that you can’t do it all yourself any more. And given hubby’s back problems, he really can’t do any of it. So I’ve resigned myself to buying hay and cobbling together the hauling with any help I can get; hubby can at least drive the trailer we use to haul it. Luckily the area we live in has lots of resources when it comes to grass and alfalfa hay, as well as grain hay.

    • January 25, 2016 6:48 pm

      Bee, I won’t be so cavalier in 10 years I bet 😉 This knee rehab is for the birds. I’d go to stockers I think before I bought hay, the prices around here are crazy and and like Kay mentioned you don’t dare complain about the hay being sold or you offend the hay guru. We will have to buy some this winter though. The drought was pretty severe last year. We were done haying before we usually start. Now that’s dry. And I do know that I am a hay snob 😉

      • Bee permalink
        January 25, 2016 8:49 pm

        I know what you mean, my right knee is my Achilles heel. Comes of hubby’s horse bucking me off lo these many years ago. Those darned orthopedic injuries leave long-lasting problems. That’s one reason (the other is my congenital laziness) why I keep looking for easier ways to do things — I’ve finally bowed to the passage of time and realize I can’t do the heavy stuff any more. Reminds me, I think I’ve discovered another benefit of that harvest/compost/plant system I tried in the kitchen garden last year. No matter what the weather in the early spring, you can just plant your seeds, because you’re not disturbing the soil in any way, just layering on top of what’s there. In a year like this one, with so much rain, it’s going to work a treat.

  7. deb permalink
    January 25, 2016 7:26 pm

    Ti mely and informative post. Thanks for the time invested in sharing your hay wisdom.
    Hay, or lack of, is, as I see it, the biggest hurdle we have on our small simple homestead. Its difficult to know where to start with improving our pasture. Our county ag extension guy just said to mow it. I am thinking maybe grazing it in combination with mowing might be a better start. If I can convince the Mr. to get a couple of steers. Hay is 8 bucks a small square here!
    Knee rehab…. I found a supplement called astaxanthin, naturally found in salmon from so e algae they eat, to be a powerful help for my knee, reducing inflammation and swelling. The kind we have is Bio-astin. Well, it seems to help me. Your mileage may vary.You can look it up if interested. I hope your knee gets better.

    • January 25, 2016 8:05 pm

      Yes, Mowing is best with no livestock, he’s right. With livestock, grazing and mowing if you need to. Laying down that carbon (carbon is good grass food) is important and it’s hard to do with a small number of livestock. You might want to get some steers in the spring and plan on butchering them after the grazing season, that would save on hay. Hay requires storage to protect the value of it or to protect your cash outlay involved with it actually. Lots of pros and cons of keeping animals over winter to reach a bigger butcher size.

      Good to know about the supplement. PT is going good, but it’s easy to overdo when the weather is so mild. So many tasks so little time.

  8. January 25, 2016 7:31 pm

    Thanks for this. I keep eying our scruffy pasture thinking disc or at least harrow and seed. L keeps saying wait for the livestock it’ll change. I’ll wait…

    • January 25, 2016 8:07 pm

      M. Agriculteur, of course listen to L. 🙂 It still wouldn’t hurt to throw out some seeds of something. I’m guessing though, there is a lot of good seeds there just waiting for the extra food and stimulation that livestock will bring. Baby hoof steps.

      • January 25, 2016 9:22 pm

        The previous owner hayed it for over 60 years and never put anything back on it. In the 4 years we’ve had it, we’ve been mowing it hoping to build it back up. Hopefully we will get some animals on it next year.
        I’ve taken pics of just about everything I’ve seen growing in it – I’ll have to pick up a copy of Weeds of the West to help with the things I haven’t been able to identify yet.
        Thanks for sharing your wisdom (and for your sage advice to M 😉) – I’m looking forward to the next post!

  9. January 25, 2016 11:58 pm

    So true about pastures and hay (in our case haylage). We never stop improving and tweaking. Our pastures support our beef cattle. The cattle help return nutrients back to the soil through intensive rotational grazing. Since we don’t purchase fertilizer, we continually watch the legume vs grass mixture to help bring more nitrogen into the soil to support the pasture. We appreciate the diversity and hope to introduce field radishes in the future.

    Making haylage allows us to focus harvest on the maturity of the forage without worrying about the weather during harvest. We harvest early in the season (April) and continue cutting through mid-July. Definitely a labor of love!

    • January 26, 2016 5:58 am

      Rich, definitely a labor of love. We haven’t moved into the haylage arena, but I can see where it makes total sense in our climate.

  10. Karen permalink
    January 26, 2016 9:03 am

    In his book “Gaining Ground”, Forrest Pritchard writes of finally making the decision to purchase hay for his cattle. He sold the families antiquated equipment, thus putting an end to the headache of repairs and frustration with weather. It was also a way to improve his pastures as he was leaving the fertility in place. People thought he was nuts. But you could hear the sigh of relief in his writing. Good read, btw.

    • January 26, 2016 11:43 am

      Karen, if only we still lived in a farming community, and hay was available at a decent price. Hay prices in my location are driven by the equine market, so paying retail is pretty hard to justify in our situation. It makes perfect sense to buy in hay rather than making it for sure, and if you can find a good source of hay, many times the seller isn’t even breaking even. But that’s their loss.

      • January 26, 2016 12:29 pm

        Great discussion!

        I agree that based on economics, I’m not sure it makes sense to produce your own hay/haylage. When you factor in equipment costs and labor, making your own hay/haylage isn’t cheap. However in a year when hay is in tight supply, you have the security knowing you can feed your animals. As a hay producer, you also control the quality and know exactly what goes into your pasture and ultimately your hay. This is an added plus for our customers who buy our beef.

        We looked into having others produce the haylage for us which would have been cheaper. Unfortunately, most people who have the equipment are too busy harvesting for larger farms; we wouldn’t be able to get cuttings (usually 4 times per season) done when needed.

  11. January 26, 2016 1:17 pm

    I am grateful we make all our hay. However, now that we don’t have enough animals to eat it all, dealing with the folks that need to buy can make one a bit batty! There are the wonderful repeat customers, that never quibble the price, or complain that the hay doesn’t look “sweet” enough, and then there are the ones that before they even show up to look at it swear it is too expensive. We are learning as we go, but it is definitely a process to find good customers!

    • January 26, 2016 1:56 pm

      Paintsmh, I know we found that the humans were harder to deal with than livestock. So glad we don’t do hay for anyone but ourselves anymore. I think you need a few more cows to help with that surplus 😉 Wish we were neighbors!

      • January 27, 2016 6:52 am

        I do too!! Don’t suppose you wanna move to NY do yah lol

        • January 27, 2016 7:29 am

          I was thinking you should move here 😉

        • January 28, 2016 5:18 am

          You could just come on over to facebook… is almost the same thing…. If we move anywhere it will probably be the least populated state we can find…Probably one of the Dakotas lol

  12. Sherrie Blake permalink
    January 28, 2016 9:36 am

    Loved this post!! I’d love to hear more about making quality pasture. My husband and I were just discussing having someone come in to disc, cultipack, and plant grass for us. I’d love to know more about your methods. I’m in Texas if it matters thanks for your posts.s sh

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