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Making Hay – The Process and Helpful Tips

May 2018 - Sponsored by Kubota

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The term “making hay” may hold different connotations for many people, but if you grew up on a farm or lived in a rural area, making hay was synonymous with the warming days of late spring or early summer, as you got ready for the first cutting of hay for the year. I think if you would show a picture of a hay bale – either round or square – to even urban city dwellers, they would probably have a good idea what they were looking at. I would also venture that those same people would not have a clue how it got from crop to finished product.

The process of making hay has steadily changed through the years from the earliest methods used of cutting grass with a scythe and raking it with a wooden hand rake, to the horse-drawn machinery of the 1800s and the tractor-powered processes developed and improved upon over the last 100 years. If you use hay to feed livestock, determining if you would purchase your hay from someone or bale it yourself is really dependent on the scope of your needs and your availability to hay land and the equipment necessary to bale it. Regardless of the amount of hay you produce in a year, it all can be broken down into four basic steps: cutting, tedding, raking, and bailing.

Cutting or Mowing Hay 

The timing of the first cutting of hay of the year is based on the stage of plant growth and the conditions – predominantly weather – that are most favorable to allow the cut hay to dry out for the rest of the baling process. It’s a good practice to rely on a weather forecasting model that will give you at least a few days of dry conditions from the time of your hay mowing. A general rule of thumb is that it takes about three days of good drying weather to cure hay for baling. Some common equipment used for mowing hay are the sickle mower and the rotary disc mower.

The sickle mower was one of the earliest mechanical mowers developed and there are variations that are still manufactured today. It consists of a long bar 5 to 7 feet long with cutters along the bar edge. They work acceptably with even small tractors but are prone to clog easily and do not have a way to crimp or squeeze the hay to help speed the drying process.

The most common type of mower is the rotary disc mower. The disc mower can operate at higher speeds through thick hay and has the ability to windrow the cut material. The disc mower gets its name from the rotary discs that are mounted in parallel along the mower with small knives that spin at a high rate of speed to cut the hay. The hay then passes through rollers – called conditioners – that crush the stems, which helps the hay to dry more efficiently. Rotary disc mowers can be purchased in models that can cut swaths from 6 feet all the way up to 10 feet or more.

Tedding

Tedder

 

Once hay is cut and on the ground, it requires a period of drying time so that the hay doesn’t get baled with a high moisture content, which can cause it to mold or spoil. Tedding is the process of using an implement to lift or fluff up the hay once it has been cut, to promote thorough drying of all parts of the hay. Tedding actually will move the bottom of the windrow up to the top to maximize air circulation. Tedders have several wheels that lift the hay as it turns, and there are also models that employ a long horizontal bar that has a reel that rotates as the tedder moves forward.

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Deciding when to use a tedder may be based on multiple factors, such as the type of hay, humidity, and weather outlook. Some people like to cut hay in the morning and ted the hay late that same afternoon, while others prefer to wait one full day after cutting to allow the top of the hay to have adequate time to dry. As mentioned before, if hay is baled too wet it can cause the hay to spoil, but if it is dried or handled too much – for example by tedding – it can cause damage to the leaves of hay, such as alfalfa or clover.

Raking

Raking

Raking is the final step in the drying process and pulls the hay into windrows for baling. There are several types of rakes available, with the most popular being the wheel rake and the rotary rake.

Wheel rakes have been around for a long time and come in many configurations and number of wheels on the rake. They do not require hydraulics or PTO power to operate and they tend to be lower in cost then some of the other rake options. Wheel rakes are built for speed and are most efficient with dry hay. If not tensioned correctly, wheel rakes have a tendency to pull soil into the windrow, which lowers the quality of the hay. Because of their lower price point and availability in the used equipment market, wheel rakes are a popular choice with farmers and ranchers.

Rotary rakes originated in Europe and have found their way into the U.S. market. They are powered as opposed to just pull-type rakes, so they tend to be more expensive than wheel rakes. Their main benefits include being able to handle wet or heavy hay, make fluffy and uniform windrows, and manufacturers claim they tend to leave the least amount of soil contamination in the windrow, which means higher quality feed. Rotary rakes also appeal to large hay producers as there are models of rotary rakes that can cover up to 60 feet in a single pass.

Baling Hay

Baling

 

The final step in processing the hay is baling. There are two options when it comes to the type of bale: square bales or round bales. Each bale type has its own benefits depending on the individual needs of the user and type of livestock being fed.

The square bales can be beneficial for people with fewer animals as they tend to be easier to handle and store. Conversely, for larger farming operations, round bales are more efficient and they are less prone to spoilage because they are packed so densely and can shed water on their own. Horse owners tend to like square bales as they are easier to handle in stalls and with one or just a few horses, there is less waste. Cattle producers like the ease and efficiency of hauling large round bales to pastures or feed lots, and with a tractor and a bale fork, one person can move a lot of hay by themselves.

Round bales are made by pulling the hay into the baler, which winds or rolls the hay until it reaches the size set for the bale, at which time twine or netting is wrapped around the bale to maintain its shape. The bale is then dropped from the rear of the baler and can be moved by a tractor with a bale spear. As mentioned before, round bales naturally shed water but can be wrapped with a plastic sheeting for added moisture protection. The size of round bales can run from 4-by-5 feet (weighing about 800 pounds) to 5-by-6 feet (about 1,500 pounds).

Square bales are made by hay being lifted into the baler’s reel, which is then packed into a bale chamber along the side of the baler. A plunger and knife moves back and forth in front of the bale chamber and a flywheel helps provide the extra force to fill and pack the bale into the chamber. Once it gains the appropriate length, the twine is wrapped around the bale and it’s ejected from the chamber. Square bales can be made of various sizes depending on the baler, but typically they are 15 inches wide by 18 inches high by 40 inches long and weigh between 40 to 60 pounds, depending on the type of hay and moisture content.

 Storage 

Once hay is baled, for long-term protection and quality it should be stored in barns or sheds to protect it from the elements. If you don’t have a means of storing the hay inside, bales can be stacked in place and tarped.

If your only option is to store the bales outside, round bales tend to suffer less damage due to the tight winding of the bale and natural water-shedding shape. As mentioned earlier, round bales may also be wrapped with a plastic sheeting as an additional way to keep moisture out.

Be sure to research your region for the ideal hay production/storage methods and determine the appropriate regional crops, equipment, and harvest seasons for producing hay.  

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