Knowing how to correctly cut hay so you don’t ruin your crop is key for a successful hay harvest.
Illustration Courtesy Bethany Caskey
Making hay is comprised of a series of steps, each as important as its predecessor. Choosing the right type of hay to grow, knowing which equipment to use, and using the best techniques for your region of the country are all key pieces of the hay-making puzzle. In the Organic Farming Manual (Storey Publishing 2010), author Ann Larkin Hansen provides advice for all parts of the hay harvesting process. Taken from “Chapter 7: Field Crops”, this excerpt explains how to make hay successfully, from cutting to drying, raking, and finally baling.
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One of the quintessential smells of farming is the scent of fresh-cut hay on a warm summer evening. It warms the soul like the smell of baking bread, or the scent of wood smoke on a cool morning. When the weather holds and the equipment runs, making hay is a pleasure. When thunderstorms are building to the west and the hay rake breaks and needs welding, it gets stressful.
Hay is alfalfa, clovers, grasses, or any mix of the three that are cut while green and growing, dried in the field, then raked into windrows and baled. Most dairy farmers grow straight alfalfa for its high soluble protein levels and high yields. Many organic dairy farmers and most other livestock producers prefer a mixed grass/legume hay. Timothy and red clover used to be a common combination for a less-rich diet on heavier (having lots of clay) ground, though this mix dries more slowly than alfalfa. Some native grasses like quack grass also make good hay, though the per-acre yield is lower.
If you don’t have livestock but still want the benefits of a forage in your crop rotation, you can either grow forages to plow down as green manures or cut hay as a cash crop to sell to certified organic livestock producers. There’s always a market for certified organic hay, though it may be some distance away and require hiring a trucker.
When to Cut Hay
Young hay, cut before blossoming, has low fiber and high soluble protein levels, which boosts milk production in dairy animals and fattens young stock, but can cause runny manure, too. Older hay, cut between blossom and seed head maturity, has higher carbohydrate levels, good for maintaining breeding and working animals. Hay that is cut too old, after seed heads are mature or later, will be less palatable to livestock and they may not eat as much. In a mixed planting some species will “head out” or go to seed before others. Cutting hay that is a mixed planting is a judgment call.
The number of cuttings made in a season depends on the length of the growing season, the amount of rain, and how hard you want to push your land. Cutting hay is generally done one month to six weeks apart when rainfall is adequate. Dairy farmers in the upper Midwest aim for three or four cuttings each season, beginning at the end of May and wrapping up in early September (though some will cut again in October). Irrigated farms in California may see up to 10 cuttings a year.
Another option is to graze hayfields in the early spring and late fall, taking just one or two cuttings during the summer. This gets manure on the field without the farmer having to spread it, saves the labor and expense of making a cutting, and greatly extends the grazing season.
When making hay, the crop must be first cut and left to dry for a day or two. Then it’s raked into long windrows, checked for dryness, and when it’s dry enough, picked up with a baler and made into bales. That’s quite a lot of hay equipment, but machinery is what makes it possible to make a large crop with just one or two people. A hundred years ago hay was cut and raked with horses or by hand, with scythes, then loaded bundle by bundle onto wagons, to be built into outdoor haystacks or stored loose in barns. The process required every available pair of hands, and even then the acres covered were miniscule compared to what can be done with machinery.
Cutting hay is done using the same approach to the field as when planting, though in this case you do the field edges first instead of last, so that you can turn equipment at the row ends without trampling the crop in the headlands (edges). Driving on cut hay is much preferred to driving on uncut hay, though best of all is if you can get the headlands cut and baled a couple days before cutting the rest of the field. Then you don’t have to drive on any hay.
Once cut, the hay is left to dry. This can happen as quickly as a day with a light crop, low humidity, warm temperatures, and a good breeze. It can take as long as two days or more with humid weather, no breeze, and a heavy cutting. If the hay is cut with a cutter bar instead of a haybine with rollers, before it’s raked it may need to be turned with a tedder, a specialized type of hay rake that flips the hay without putting it into tight windrows, where it would take longer to dry.
Once the hay is dry, it is raked into windrows. If it’s very dry you can lose some of it to leaf shattering, so in this case rake gently, that is, not too fast. If it’s not completely dry (“tough” is a common term) it may mold or self-ignite after being baled. It’s strange to think of wetness causing a fire, but if there’s enough moisture, it jump-starts bacterial action, just as in a compost pile. Bacteria create heat. With a bunch of damp bales packed tightly in a hayloft where the heat can’t escape, the heat can build up enough to ignite the hay, and your barn burns down. Every year barns burn down due to wet hay igniting in the loft. Technically, hay needs to be below 15 percent moisture to prevent mold, but farmers generally judge readiness by look and feel instead of a lab test. The color should be a faded green, and it should crackle in your hand. There will be clumps of damper stuff in most windrows. These may cause isolated pockets of mold but aren’t generally a problem unless they are big or there are a whole lot of them.
When it’s dry in the windrow, baling hay begins. If you’re making small square bales, get a few helpers (if you can) to stack the bales in the wagons and then load the bales into the shed or barn. If you’re working alone, you might prefer to make round bales, which are the least labor-intensive.
If you are hiring a custom operator or using someone else’s baler and intend to sell or use the hay as certified organic, purging rules apply. Two bales must be put through the baler to clean the machine. These bales must be documented and stored or sold separately from the certified organic bales.
Instead of or in addition to corn silage, many dairy farmers feed their animals haylage, or fermented forage. They store it in a silo or in big, snakelike plastic bags out in the field. Haylage is cut with a flail chopper (or a flail mower) that chops it into shorter segments. It is blown into the silo or bag at a much higher moisture level than hay, then sealed so that it ferments.
Many farmers apply preservatives when making haylage (and to dry hay, too), but these are not allowed in an organic system. The Final Rule does allow the use of a natural bacteria, lactobacillus, to aid the fermentation process.
Cows love haylage — humans aren’t the only ones to appreciate fermentation — and it’s pretty similar to hay in terms of nutritional value. For the farmer, haylage is easier to take off the field, since you don’t have to wait so long for it to dry and have less risk of rain damage. Also, if you have the equipment, making haylage is easier to feed rather than going through the process of making hay. See chapter 12 for more details.
Planning for Next Year
After the hay is off the field is an excellent time to apply soil amendments like manure, lime, potash, and phosphate, directly on top of the sod. Most organic amendments (except for manure and compost) are slow to take effect, and putting them on a sod, where they are not tilled into the soil, slows down the process even more. Therefore, what you put on now is to benefit next year’s crop.
Last, if you’re going to leave the field in hay for another season, it’s important to give it six weeks of rest from cutting and grazing in the fall, just before the growing season ends, so it can build up enough food reserves in the roots to survive the winter and get off to a strong start the following spring.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from
The Organic Farming Manual by Ann Larkin Hansen, published by Storey Publishing, 2010. Buy this book from our store: The Organic Farming Manual.