First, I will start with the little bit of biology that is behind the theory of good hay making, identifying the common error, and then I will move on to a theory of making good hay.
Most hayfield plants are perennials, and I am excluding for this discussion the making of hay using annual grass plants like Oats, Sorghum, Sudangrass, Sudax, and Teffgrass. The hayfield plants I am talking about are the ordinary perennial grasses and legumes—plants like Timothy, Red Clover, Orchardgrass, Bromegrass, Canarygrass, Alfalfa, etc. The shorter growing perennial grasses and legumes, like Ryegrasses, Bluegrass, and White Clover, can also be made into hay, but are usually thought of as grazed pasture. In all cases these plants are perennials, which is the key to understanding how to make good hay.
Perennials are plants that come back every year until they succumb to some sort of disease, much like trees. They do not have a planned death, like annuals and biannuals do, which is part of their overall reproductive strategy. The advantage to being perennial in the struggle for plant survival is that you do not need to re-establish yourself every year. You stake out your little bit of soil/sun real-estate and defend it however you can from your neighbors. Therefore, you invest more of your available energy in defending your turf (grass pun). You try to shade out other plants or crowd out other plants roots. Or you straight up engage in chemical warfare secreting chemicals that kill your neighbors (allelopathy). This, of course, leaves (another pun) less energy for making a bunch of big, energy-dense seeds that help your offspring get off to a flying start (this is the annual plants’ strategy). Instead, you make a lesser number of small seeds, which don’t have that much energy, and you simply hope that by making them year, after year, after year, you increase the likelihood that at least some of them land somewhere that they will make it. It also means that you have to be tough enough to survive the winter, and have to store up energy in some way to make it through that period of time where you won’t be photosynthesizing.
So, we can now safely infer a few things about perennials and annuals. One is that annuals should make more seeds per acre, and so more calories of grain per acre. They don’t have to expend energy toughening up their tissues to survive the winter, or storing energy in their roots for the dark and cold season, and so they can dump all their energy into their seeds (winter annuals like Rye, Wheat, and Barley are notable exceptions to this). Now, perennials have a huge advantage: they don’t have to establish themselves every year and hope to land in favorable real-estate. They can grow back from existing structures, and no group of plants exploits this advantage as well as trees.
Most people don’t realize this, but only the bark and the layers immediately beneath it are “alive” in a tree; heartwood is like a dead skeleton that the tree uses to its advantage to grow above and shade out the lesser perennial plants, like grasses. But grasses and low growing forbs have their strategies, which lie in their roots and their aggressive colonization abilities. People get used to idyllic paintings of orchards and forests and whatnot, but it’s important to realize that you are seeing a slow-motion total war among plants. The apple tree is shading out the bluegrass growing below it, while the bluegrass is trying to asphyxiate the roots of the apple tree. This is one reason why you have to control the sod in your orchards if you want your apples to thrive.
The little perennials sort of occupy a middle ground between the annuals and the trees. They can live just as long as a tree (though usually don’t), but they are at a competitive disadvantage because of their size; yet have a certain advantage in that they can exploit just about any location, like annuals, but their roots are more resilient. A cow can come by and nip off an Oat plant in the flowering stage and it will die and not reproduce. A cow could nip off a Bluegrass plant all year if she wants to, and it won’t kill it. It stores enough energy in its roots to grow back a leaf blade (from the bottom) to photosynthesize again. It will try and shoot up and make seeds next year if it must, but in the meantime, it will just send out roots laterally and sprout up a new bluegrass plant right next to it! This trait is what makes Bluegrass a sodformer. Taller Bromegrass and Canarygrass are also sodformers. This is important to keep in mind, because the other major hayfield grasses, and all annuals or biannuals, lack this ability. Orchardgrass, Timothy, Ryegrasses, Fescues, etc. are all bunchgrasses. They only grow from their seeds. They can tiller, which is sending out multiple stems from the same initial growth, but they cannot slowly march across a pasture invading and colonizing the way sodformers can. Oddly, this is how asparagus reproduces, too. White clover can act like a sodformer as well, except it doesn’t do it with roots; it does it with stems (called stolons) that grow along the ground. None of the other legumes can do this. Strawberries are quite unusual in having stolons. I know of no other plants in human cultivation that reproduce this way. In any case, it is important to know what a given plant’s strategy is for reproducing, because this determines how it acts in a hayfield and will determine how you have to act in a hayfield if you want to make good hay.
I always recommend at least two species for a hayfield, though I do realize that the most productive hayfields by strict reckoning of tonnages and whatnot are always grasses (C4 plants, like Sorghum, Sudangrass, Corn, Millet, or Johnsongrass) that are fertilized with large amounts of nitrogen and other soluble fertilizers. Since you are going to do at least two species, I recommend a grass and a legume, that way you get nitrogen fixation assistance. It is important to realize that there are free living nitrogen fixing bacteria—bacteria that live in most soil which can grab N2 from the air and make it soluble nitrate that plants can use. So even a pure grass stand will get “free nitrogen” from the air, though not much. Legumes, however, have a symbiotic relationship with certain species of nitrogen fixing bacteria. This relationship is so close that most legumes do not grow well without their particular bacteria and nearly all the particular bacteria cannot grow without the legume. The legume gives the bacteria a home to live in (little nodules on the roots) and soluble carbohydrates for energy, so the bacteria can concentrate all its efforts at efficiently converting N2 into nitrate for the Legume, therefore, these Rhizobium bacteria are much more efficient than free-living bacteria at making the conversion. Some of the nitrate leeches from the nodules, and as the legumes’ tissues die back, the nitrogen secured in them is released and made available to the grasses. This is why a grass-legume hayfield is typically more productive than an all grass hayfield (unless huge quantities of nitrogen are applied).
I strongly prefer that organisms fertilize my fields with free N2 from the air instead of me spreading soluble nitrogenous fertilizer that I have to buy on my field. Why? Because it is one less thing to do, costs less, is better for the environment, and because soluble nitrogen fertilizers applied to a field reduce the ability of nitrogen fixing bacteria to fix nitrogen. You gradually make your field dependent on applied soluble nitrogen, much in the same way a drug abuser becomes dependent on the drug. So, it’s good to pair up a legume and a grass for a hayfield or pasture.
Let’s start with a common example: the Red Clover and Timothy hayfield. Red Clover and Timothy are both short-lived perennials. They both usually meet their demise after 2-4 years or so, depending upon the quality of the seed you used and its disease resistance and conditions. Both lack vegetative reproductive ability. They both grow only from their seeds and cannot send out stolons or lateral roots, though Timothy can tiller. They both grow around the same height. They both rely on their seeds to reproduce, and both make a relatively large amount of seed. They both are relatively “late” in that they spend so much time flowering and making a bunch of seed that they don’t reach maturity until a time later than most, and this means that their seed is cheap: an acre of Red clover or Timothy grown by the seed company makes a whole lot of seed! I think these are the main reasons why it is such a popular and effective combination for a hayfield. So, how to make hay?
You want to make hay while there is still most of the energy (nutrition from a herbivore standpoint) in the plant, right? This means with Timothy or Red Clover just before it begins to flower or in the early flowering stages. Most Extension folks say when Red Clover is between 10-50% bloom and when Timothy is just about to flower. And it turns out that these usually happen at just about the same time with this combination (another reason why they are great together). I go by Red Clover because it’s a whole lot easier and quicker to look at a field and assess Red Clover. If all the plants have flowered or are even making seeds you have already lost much of the nutritive value of the plants—they have spent it making nectar to attract bumble bees (Red clover) or making pollen to cast to the wind (Timothy) and generally reproducing. Seeds of perennial plants have almost no nutritive value, particularly ones like Timothy that make tiny seeds with hard coats. Ryegrass and Fescue make much larger seeds that could possibly have some nutritive value, but not nearly as much as their foliage does. So the most important rule to keep about haymaking is to keep the plants from entering their reproductive phase. Even if the weather is rainy, and your hay wont dry down, at least mow it (with a mower that will shred it preferably) to set the plants back so they wont enter their reproductive phase. You may get a chance to make good hay later. If you let them go to seed, you will loose that cutting, and probably the whole season because especially non-sod forming grasses focus on storing energy and going dormant once they have done their job and reproduced for the year.
Another common combination is Orchardgrass and Alfalfa. These are both bigger plants than Timothy and Red Clover, so people think they are better. They are both longer-lived plants, generally, and supposedly more drought and heat tolerant, too. It is claimed that they both recover from mowing better, but I regularly make four or five cuts with my Red Clover/Timothy while none of my neighbors do better than three with their Alfalfa/Orchardgrass-Fescue. Orchardgrass is sort of odd in that it is among the earliest of the hayfield plants to enter its reproductive phase, and Alfalfa is the earliest legume, but not as early as Orchargrass. The primary strategy seed breeders apply to Orchardgrass to improve it is to make it reproduce later and make it more palatable—basically to make it more like Timothy. Why not just use Timothy, I wonder? I dislike Alfalfa because on my place it doesn’t do so well, or at least it does no better than Red Clover does, and Alfalfa is more expensive and harder to seed down. Again, though, the same principles apply. Don’t let the plants enter the reproductive phase, though admittedly this is very difficult if you have Orchardgrass. Mow it if you have to without making hay, but don’t break the first commandment of haymaking: thou shalt keep thine hayfield chaste. At least Alfalfa seems to be willing to come back even after it has flowered, but Orchardgrass becomes tough and coarse and seems to remain that way. I’ve seen Lizzy walk by an old Orchardgrass plant when she was hungry like it was a lawn chair and proceed to defoliate a Mulberry sapling (not normally considered a forage plant).
If you live in the Fescue belt, like I do, then you will probably get Fescue in your field if you want it or not. Most of the people where I live that claim to have Orchardgrass and Alfalfa growing, actually have Alfalfa and Tall Fescue growing, and it is hard to tell the plants apart unless they are making flowers. Orchardgrass’s flower is a dead giveaway. It is called cocksfoot in Europe because its flower group looks like a cock’s foot. No other grass is this way. Fescue and ryegrass look very similar. Tall fescue is taller than ryegrasses generally and there are particular features about their flowers that give it away. Bluegrass is pretty easy to ID: it has a canoe shaped leaf with a prominent mid-rib that always ends in a spear point. Timothy is also a dead giveaway. It has a unique looking flower that looks like a small cat-tail. It also has a small onion-like bulb at the base of its stem called a haplocorm or corm. This is Timothy’s means of storing up for the winter, and it is above ground, so do well to not damage it with mowing or grazing. Most other perennial grasses store their reserves in their roots, below ground, where they are safer from mowers and animals, but are more venerable to freezing and high water tables. This is why Timothy does better in clay than Orchardgrass, I think. Ryegrass, and to a lesser degree Fescues, store much energy in their stems. This is why Ryegrass is so nutritious. It also makes is somewhat vulnerable to very cold weather—it is the least cold-hardy, but I’ve never had winter kill in my zone 6b, even when it goes down to -10 F or so. Knowing all these things can be helpful when you need to make decisions. And Fescue can make decent hay, though it is not as palatable as Timothy or Orchargrass. The clovers store energy mostly in their stems and crowns, and don’t store much. They need to grow back from foliage mostly. This is why when you mow hard the legumes suffer more than the grasses do. And also, because of the physiology of monocots (grasses), grasses suffer the injury of mowing better anyway, since they grow from their bases instead of their tips like dicots (legumes, other forbs). Alfalfa is better about this because it stores considerable reserves in its impressive taproot. But that has its problems, too. That big root is vulnerable to frost heaving and is a prime target for attack by various diseases and pests. Birdsfoot Trefoil is oddball. It stores energy and has roots like clovers, but it is like Alfalfa in that it likes to make flowers and seeds all year. It is a tricky plant to deal with, and this is the reason why people are generally unimpressed with it. It never outperforms either Alfalfa or clovers when they are in their proper niches, but is more flexible and can cope with things that would very aversely effect the other legumes.
Sometimes, usually because of weather, you are forced to sacrifice one plant for the benefit of the other. You know that it is too early to cut your hay again because the Timothy hasn’t had enough time to recover or you cut it down too low last time, but the Red Clover is bloomin’ like crazy. If you have too much Timothy you might want to favor the Red Clover, for example. Or perhaps there is too much Red Clover and you want to favor the Timothy, so you let the clover go. This is very tricky with Alfalfa and Orchardgrass, so tricky that I can’t even give you any advice. I’ve never seen it done well, and I sure haven’t!
Another hayfield combination I am experimenting with is Reed Canarygrass, a sodformer that tends to have a fairly open canopy, and upright Birdsfoot Trefoil, and I am growing it in a stubbornly wet area that I can’t get any other perennials to grow in. I don’t know much yet, however. My hope is that the drought tolerance and summertime production characteristic of Canarygrass and BFT will make it easier to make hay because of less weather interference, and also because I am less busy this time of year.
You can, of course, make hay out of pasture (especially a cow-pie free spring pasture that hasn’t been grazed yet). Since pasture plants (bluegrass, ryegrass, chicory, white clover) tend to be shorter, it can be difficult to get a good mow with a sickle bar mower. If you can do it with a sickle bar mower then that is the way to go. If it isn’t working well, then use a regular rotary lawnmower. Set it for a pretty high cut and you will end up with a bunch of shredded up grass and clover clippings. These dry very fast, usually in one day, and you can rake them up like you would leaves. Hay rakes may work surprisingly well, too. Then just pile them up. You won’t be terribly impressed at the quantity, but it will be of good quality. The biggest draw back is that it doesn’t fork very well, and I doubt you could bale it. But it is a better thing to do with an uneaten pasture that is getting overly mature than to let it get over mature. You could just mow it, too, but if you are short on hay or hayfields this is a reasonable thing to do.
Now, I want to cover some of the basics of actually making hay. There are many ways to do it, but basically it comes down to cutting, drying, and then gathering it up somehow and storing it somehow. Cutting and drying are the most important. You need to cut at the right time, not only in light of the plants (which I have discussed), but also in light of the weather so it dries. And rarely does the weather cooperate. But I do recommend paying attention to weather forecasts. The more attention you pay, the more you will learn about the particularities in your area for hay making weather. You will gain experience and gradually be able to make better and better calls as to when you should cut, but even experienced farmers make bad calls. And that hay gets rained on and ranked lower; so be it. You don’t always need the best hay, and even bad hay makes ok bedding. Nothing goes to waste.
I cut with a newish double action sickle bar mower made in Italy. I spent the money on this after struggling for two seasons first with an old American-made New Idea sickle bar mower and then a John Deere. Both sucked. Single action mowers (where only the teeth move and the guards are fixed) just can’t keep up. They especially get bogged down in heavy, lush Red Clover hay. Alfalfa would be a nightmare. If you are going to use one of these pieces of junk, then I recommend two things. One, plant thin and only mow in the driest of weather when the hay is nearly overgrown. That way it will flop over the mower and you’ll get through the job. This means you will never be able to make really great hay, which is in earlier stages of vegetative growth. Two, watch your fingers! When you lift or lower this type of mower the teeth move in the guards and will lop your finger right off. They are so frustrating that I really recommend you spend a solid $1000-2000 on a lightly used Italian-made double action sickle bar mower. If that is too much, then just buy hay. Reasons: Italy has lots of Olive orchards and vineyards where they grow hay in between. Therefore, they make smaller, yet high performance, equipment there. In the USA fields are gigantic, so all the good equipment is gigantic. For the same reason I suspect, the best small agricultural equipment always seems to come from the British Isles, Italy or Japan (smallish countries with large populations that demand good food). The double action mechanism is a vast mechanical improvement over the single action types found on American equipment. When both the guard and the teeth are moving relative to each other, it not only cancels out most of the vibration (like a boxer type engine does), it also effectively doubles the cutting speed. One of the reasons why the rotating disc type mower became dominant in America is because it was so much faster than a single action sickle mower. The double action mower is in between in speed. I mow at about 3 MPH. My neighbor mows at about 5 with his disc mower. With my old single actions I was happy if I could get 1.5 MPH! Another advantage to the sickle bar mower in general is that they are gentle on the hay. This makes it easier to rake, and if you don’t bale, it makes forking it much better. Having nice long strands of hay speeds up everything. Disc mowers not only cut the hay into smaller pieces, they can also “shatter” legumes pretty badly. This means knocking the leaves off the stems, and the leaves are where most of the nutrition is. Red clover is particularly apt to shatter if it gets too dry (this happened after it was cut). I’ve seen lightly used Italian all-mechanical (no hydraulics) 3 point sickle bar mowers on Cragslist for $1000-2000. Usually an old American one is $500-1000, so it is really not much more to get the Italian one. I bought a new Italian one that mounts on the front of a two-wheeled tractor for the highest level of maneuverability possible (I only make 1-3 acres of hay annually), and it cost just under $2000, which is a considerable expense, but one that I will hopefully never have again.
Once the hay is mown, the goal is for it to dry properly. There is a balance to this, and often weather events, which are out of your control, will determine the outcome even if you do everything “right.” Another reason (besides being gentle) why I think double-action sickle bar mowers are better than rotary disc mowers is that that the hay just flops (or “rolls”) over the bar and is fairly evenly distributed on the ground and not in “windrows.” Rotary mowers always seem to pile up hay into thicker sections and into thinner sections. I will grant that windrowing hay makes sense, especially if you live in a windy place like I do, IF you go down the rows with a hay rake each drying day and move the windrows and achieve a distribution of the contents that allows every bit of it to be exposed to the wind and sun to dry. I honestly think just a thin-ish and even distribution of it on the ground does better overall. Yes, it will get dew on it in the mornings, and yes the undersides of the plants wont get dried as well, but at least it will be fairly even. It is also a lot less work. The key is to not let the hay get overgrown, and so it is not so thick that it doesn’t dry well this way. Make more light cuttings instead of a few heavy ones. I loose stack hay, so a bit of excess moisture has an opportunity to escape in the pile better than it would if it were baled.
Estimating dryness of hay is something very difficult to express in words or show in pictures. I will give some general guidelines that will be able to tell if it is either too moist or too dry. With time, you should get better. If it is too dry you will see shattering on legumes. As I mentioned before, this is when the leaves fall off like dry leaves fall off a tree in autumn. I know this because one time I piled up hay with too much moisture. Hay with too much moisture is bad because it may start to mold, and that is not good for the animals, and very bad because it can catch on fire and burn your barn down. Hay, like a compost pile, will decompose if there is too much moisture in it because microorganisms will begin metabolizing and heat it up the point it may combust. My mistake was piling it up when it had enough moisture to mold, but not enough to heat up (I am so paranoid about this I check the stacks every day by plunging my arm into them to feel for heat). Over the course of a about a week, the mostly Red Clover hay developed gray-black mold on it. So I took the whole pile out and spread it on a concrete driveway on a sunny and dry day. Boy, it dried down fast compared to a hayfield! In a single day, it dried down to being almost like a potato chips, and shattered. In just one job I leaned of both the extremes of too much and too little moisture. I hope this helps.
After you think the hay is dry enough, then you want to get out the rake(s) and rake it up into windrows or piles. I actually prefer piles because of the way I gather it up. Most people will then take a baler and go along the windrow and suck up the hay, it will be baled, and then a wagon following the baler will collect up the bales. I just don’t make enough hay to justify the expense and aggravation of a baler (the most notorious of all farm machines at breaking down at the worst possible time). What I do is rake into windrows then I roll the windrows into piles with hand rakes. Then I go along with my handy-dandy all-purpose trailer and fork the piles into the trailer (a pickup truck could be used). The trailer goes back to the barn where the hay is forked to wherever it will be stacked up. It is amazing to me the amount of hay that can be piled up and how quickly it can be moved when you leave it long-stranded and develop good forking technique. Yes, you cannot get it as compact and tidy as you can with baled hay, but I find haymaking much more “fun” without the baler. I’ve got hay making to the point it is as pleasant as mowing a suburban lawn, and I’d like to keep it that way.
Another advantage to loose stacks is that you can also easily “salt” hay this way. This is on old-timer farmer practice, and the old-timer farmers, the ones that I fully expect to ride off into the sunset someday on their tractor and never return, continue to do this. The one I have in mind just uses regular granulated salt. I like to use the granulated trace mineral salt you get for animals at places like Tractor Supply or Rural King. Basically you toss a few handfuls of salt over the stack of hay. Why? Mainly because I do think it absorbs some excess moisture that may be in the stack, and so acts as sort of fire-preventer, though I would never rely on this. I also believe it improves the palatability of the hay. I lightly salt my food. Why wouldn’t an animal like this, too? It also sort of forces the animals to consume a little salt. I always keep salt out for animals free choice, but I rarely see them touch it. I don’t eat pure salt, so why would they? So I salt the hay. It’s also a sort of ritual, too. Once the hay has been salted the job is done: ite missa est.