Looking for Mr. Goodbale
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.
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 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?