Most people enjoy sunny, warm, slightly breezy, and moderate humidity weather with a big blue sky filled with big puffy white clouds. Many people would call this ideal picnic weather. I would point out though that it is also ideal hay making weather, and hay making is definitely something that improves a picnic (it is perhaps the most wonderful smell in the world), and picnics can improve haymaking, that’s for sure.
The time hay weather comes around like this is in July and August, sometimes even September. Spring and early Summer are too rainy and too humid. But of course, rainy weather is what makes grass grow like crazy. So most people are very eager to lay up their “1st Cutting” of hay in May or June. I certainly make hay at this time; I have to because my pastures easily overgrow. OR at least I think I have to. Truly, I could just mow it, preferably with a mower that would shred it up like a rotary lawnmower or flail mower, and just let the earth take it back, via my subterranean livestock (earthworms), while waiting for better hay weather to come.
Some farmers seem to think that starting to make hay this late in the year is lazy. It is not, really, and to be quite honest, the tendency with hay seems to be that too much is made. How much of this is because of Pa Ingalls and his Long Winter, where his determination to make a tremendous quantity of hay carried them through the winter (they even burned the hay like wood), and almost every child exposed to this vivid story remembers this tale, or how much of this is because of the ordinary human tendency to overdo everything, I don’t know, but I only used half the hay I bought last year, and I bought enough that even if none of the hay I made was useable, there would be enough. Now this year I have half the hay I bought last year sitting around, slowly deteriorating, plus all the hay I made this year, and I already made too much this year (unless I were to buy more animals or sell hay, which I don’t want to do). I suppose it is a good problem to have. Meanwhile I am watching beautiful hay making weather pass, and I am mourning what could be wonderful hay just laying in the field. All because I was too itchy to make it early. All because I lack faith, am paranoid, and certainly suffer a certain degree of conventional attitudes toward making hay. I know in my brain that I could have mowed it then, it would have rotted down beautifully by now, and I could have cut last week and would be bringing in the better hay right now under the most comfortable circumstances imaginable, but alas my heart knew then that I needed to start making hay in May so that “there will be enough” even as I just watched the stack grow to the barn roof and I had to call my neighbor over with a round baler so there would be space.
I am convinced that even though it may not be a true “1st Cutting” to have simply mown in May or June and have taken the first collection of hay in July that this hay is as good if not better. This may seem like heresy to some. If you go on Craigslist, or look in the classifieds of newspaper in a rural county, you will see hay sold as “1st Cutting” always priced higher than subsequent cuttings. In fact, it seems that 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or even 5th cuttings aren’t even mentioned; it’s either “1st Cutting” or just hay. I think much of this nonsense is motivated by “horse people,” which are prime buyers of hay. Most “horse people” have a couple of horses, and try to treat them very well, but usually never exercise them enough, or let them have access to pastures, or keep their bedding in a healthful manner. Those things require time and some dedication. But darn it, it’s easy to be fussy about the “horse quality hay” they get for their horses, and they like to imagine themselves to be good horse keepers because of this fussiness. They also seldom “have time” to make hay (yet almost always have plenty of land for it) and so really have no appreciation for the making of hay. This is the perfect storm, if you will, of hay ignorance.
The truth about hay quality is really quite simple. Good hay will be composed of good plants with high nutrient levels, will be cut at the right stage of maturity (not in seed), will have dried down quickly in the field (this is why it’s better to make in high summer), and finally will have been baled or stacked at the proper moisture level and kept under cover but with plenty of ventilation. Surprisingly, this can look many different ways. Wonderful hay can be made from Native grasses, and even what are normally considered weed grasses. Johnsongrass and Reed Canarygrass, two invasive “weed” grasses, both make wonderful hay that can rival the best that Timothy has to offer (Timothy is normally considered the prime hay grass). I’ve shown in another post how Oats can be made into excellent hay. And good hay may be loose stacked, square baled, or round baled. It may be stored in a barn, under a shed, or beneath a tarp. It can even be stacked in the field, but some of the hay on the outside, which is exposed to the sun and rain, will deteriorate. To me, a tarp and some poles are easily worth it, and so would be a decent hayshed; the ideal type in my mind would be essentially four poles, with a metal or thatched roof over it, and hay stacked beneath it. If it was loose hay, I would especially think it worth putting some vertical siding boards or mesh on the outside to both contain the hay and also to repel any horizontal rain, yet still provide good ventilation.
In fact, I think the hayshed should be the symbolic building of farmland, not the barn or silo and especially not the garage. Hay is the most environmentally benign way to reliably conserve feedstuff for animals in the wintertime. In a way, making hay is preserving a bit of summertime for the winter. Hayfields, as I’ve pointed out before, are pretty good places compared to fields where annual plants are grown. Hayfields have living plants all through the winter with intact root structures (prevent erosion), usually require little or no tillage, are more biologically diverse than fields, and if they have a good number of legumes and are manured with some frequency, build soil fertility rather than rob it. They help the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, and the carbon cycle. Hayfields can of course be used as pastures as I’ve pointed out, and in fact, I think it is best if “hayfields” are thought of as a pasture where hay is collected periodically. Hayfields should have fences. Pastures are even more beneficent for the environment of course; if managed properly, they sequester carbon faster than forests, and they don’t require energetic inputs in the form of mowing, baling, hauling, etc. Animals provide that energy directly though their own efforts, but pastures don’t go all year in non-tropical climates, so something must be done. Silage is another common strategy, and so is grain feeding, both of which take far more in terms of energy and machinery. Two alternative strategies which are energetically and mechanically favorable, but are less reliable, are growing of certain root crops that remain nutritious through the winter, and stockpiling, which is just letting a hayfield sit into the winter and allowing animals to graze it, even in snow.