The choice of plant (or plants) to be grown for hay depends on many factors: climate, availability of water, tonnage needed, type of livestock being fed, etc.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/HARALD BIEBEL
Hay is basically dried vegetation: usually a legume such as
alfalfa or clover, or a grass such as timothy or brome.
It's one crop that can be raised with proper care in any
part of the country where weeds will grow, and it's a must
for any self-sufficient farmer who keeps livestock.
A Guide to Growing, Harvesting and Baling Hay
The choice of plant (or plants) to be grown for hay
depends on many factors: climate, availability of water,
tonnage needed, type of livestock being fed, etc. Local
preferences are usually a good guide. (A detailed study of
the characteristics and requirements of forage crops is found
in The Stockman's Handbook by M.E. Ensminger, available for
$27.25 from The Interstate, Danville, Illinois, or from
MOTHERS Bookshelf. — MOTHER.)
Whatever hay crop you choose can be grown either as part of
a farm rotation plan or in a permanent meadow. The former
system has the advantage of helping establish uniform soil
fertility (particularly if one of the legumes is raised).
The latter, however, provides stubble for winter pasture,
helps to control erosion, and is particularly suitable for
A plot of earth is prepared for forage crops in much the
same manner as for most field and vegetable plantings
except that if you're reseeding an old hayfield, you may
omit plowing and merely disc the area. Soil tests should be
made before seed is sown to determine any deficiencies and
manure, lime, compost, ground rock, etc., spread as
required. Hay has been grown for thousands of years without
chemical fertilizers, and there's no need for them today.
In fact, organically raised fodder is better for livestock
and is less susceptible to insect infestation (which is
quite rare on healthy soil).
Hayseed is planted like grain: spread either by hand (in
the classic manner of a farm wife scattering chicken feed)
or with a hand-cranked broadcaster available at low cost
(around here, about $10.00 — MOTHER.) from many hardware
stores and seed houses.
A more uniform stand of hay is created by a grain drill (see Figure 1 in the image gallery), a machine which is pulled by a team or tractor and
plants the seeds in evenly spaced rows. You may be able to
borrow a drill from a neighbor, or (here in Colorado, at
least) you can hire a custom operator to do the work for a
small charge per acre.
In that case the cereal is harvested at the end of the
first season, while the hay is generally left uncut until
the following year.
If irrigation is normally required to grow vegetables in
your area, you'll find it profitable to give your hayfield
the same treatment. In semi-arid regions like ours (with an
average precipitation of 14 inches a year), artificially
watered stands yield three to four times as much fodder as
their parched counterparts. (Alfalfa, for example, requires
831 pounds of water to produce one pound of dried hay.)
Most hayfields will flourish for five years or more without
reseeding. The only care necessary during that time is the
spreading of fertilizers as needed and a periodic
harvesting of the crop. One possible exception: Your
locality could suffer an infestation of aphids or locusts
some season … with disastrous results. Whether or not you
spray under such conditions is a matter of conscience. If
you choose not to do so, you can reduce your losses
substantially by cutting the hay immediately upon attack
and drying and storing it fast enough to save it from total
Even in a normal year, when you're not racing a horde of
hungry pests, the timing of the hay harvest is very
important. The reason for this is that as the forage crop's
blossoms develop, its energy goes into producing seed and
its nutritional value begins to decrease. Legumes should
therefore be cut at 10 to 20 percent of full flower for
maximum protein and vitamin content. Grass hay is usually
put up a little later by the calendar (just when depends on
the climate of your area), but still during early bloom.
Three steps are involved in turning a green crop into what
can rightfully be called hay:
 Cutting (followed by partial drying.)
(followed by further drying.)
 Baling hay or stacking hay.
Just how you go about these operations depends on the
amount of the harvest and the availability of money,
equipment, and manpower.
In days of yore, hay was cut with a scythe and windrowed
and stacked with a fork (all by hand). Unless very small
amounts (two acres or less) of the animal feed are being
put up or unless one is very thoroughly hung up on the
romantic tradition this method is now impractical. (Someone
who's good with a scythe really ought to write an article
on the subject. I've tried my hand with the old time tool
and rate its proper use as an art.)
Nowadays, most hay cutting is done with a mechanical mower
powered by a tractor or horse. True, the tractor-driven
model is two or three times faster, but you can buy its
old-fashioned counterpart for almost nothing (after all,
who uses horses anymore?) and you'll find it quite
efficient. The mower (see Figure 2 in the image gallery) cuts a seven foot
swath and ought to be able to handle one acre per hour.
(Incidentally, if horses or mules aren't available, such
equipment can be pulled by a tractor running at very low
Freshly cut hay is allowed to dry (pray for clear weather!)
for anywhere from a half day to three days after it's
mowed. It's then windrowed, or raked into rows. The tool
commonly used for this purpose is the so called side delivery rake (see Figure 3 in the image gallery), an ingenious horse– or tractor–drawn device which
sweeps the stalks into neat columns with leaves turned
inward and stems outward (to promote uniform drying).
The raking operation goes quite fast once you get the hang
of it. It's a bit tricky, though, since two mowed swaths
must usually be thrown together to form one windrow of
suitable size for field curing. A steady hand on reins or
steering wheel is required and slip-ups will probably bring
some ridicule from neighboring farmers, who derive
considerable amusement from amateur efforts (as I learned
during my first summer).
The windrowed hay is next allowed to dry until most of its
moisture has evaporated. One simple test for dryness is to
twist stalks taken at random and examine them for internal
dampness. Another is to put some wisps in a small box along
with a couple of teaspoons or so of salt. Shake the
container vigorously for about one minute. If the salt
remains dry, the hay is ready to store.
Baling or stacking wet hay is not only economically foolish
since the fodder may mold or rot, and no livestock will eat
it in that state but downright dangerous. Moisture in the
stack can lead to spontaneous combustion, a lesson many a
farmer has learned by the light of his burning barn.
"Make hay while the sun shines" is the traditional rule.
Nevertheless, a passing rain on the hayfield isn't quite as
serious as it's often made out to be. just wait a day or so
after the shower until the surface of the cut fodder has
dried. Then make another run through the fields with the
side-delivery rake to turn the windrows over so that their
bottoms can dry. If you're lucky, very little of the fine,
choice leaves and other tender foliage will "shatter" and
fall off. An extended wet spell, however, is another matter,
a misfortune that can ruin a harvest. Keep tabs on the
weather reports during haying, and — as noted, if you're so
disposed — pray.
Dried hay may be stored in stacks or in bales. The easiest
way to gather the fodder for stacking is to have someone
drive a truck or pull a trailer between windrows while
several helpers fork on the harvest. If you lay ropes on
the empty bed of the vehicle and loop them over the top of
the finished heap, unloading will be a simple matter of
tying the ends of the cords to some stationary object such
as a tree and driving away.
Haystacks should be built to look like haystacks, and if you
don't know what I mean, you might do well to spend an
afternoon in an art museum, with particular attention to
the room that houses the Dutch masters. The larger the
stack the better, because big piles have a smaller ratio of
surface area to volume and soon pack down, thus preventing
rain from seeping in and ruining the hay.
To offset its lack of Old World flavor (which only the most
discerning of livestock will notice) baled hay has the
advantages of being easier to handle, requiring less time
and labor to put up, and taking less storage space. The
chief drawback here, however, is that you'll need a baler — a
small factory in itself — which is often expensive both to
buy and to maintain. (Beware of "bargains" … we bought a
twine tie baler, used, for $200 and put many gray hairs on
our heads as a result.)
Unless you're putting up enough dried foliage — say 15 to 20
acres — to justify the purchase of a good used baler, I'd
suggest that you either stack your hay or hire a custom
operator to do the baling for you. A check on local rates
may very well show that the service is less expensive than
ownership of the necessary equipment.
A closing note that may be of special interest to communes
and other groups: In most of this country's rural areas,
it's possible to pick up some extra money during the summer
by "bucking" hay (taking bales from the field and building
them into a neat pile or putting them up in a barn's loft).
You'll generally be paid at a fixed rate of so many cents
per bale in the western half of the country and so much per
hour back east. We've found that a bucking crew of a female
driver and three men can handle an average of 500 bales a
Before you start calling me a sexist, by the way, please
consider that every one of these solid blocks of fodder
weighs about 75 pounds. I well remember the day when one of
our woman members decided to help buck while the rest of us
took turns driving. She ended the afternoon in tears of
exhaustion. It's that kind of work, which is why most
farmers are more than willing to pay somebody else to do it
for them. Before you commit yourself to bucking 10,000
bales, though, try working at the job on a trial basis for
a day or two first … just to make sure you want the money as
much as you'll have to labor to get it.