Small-Scale Haying on the Homestead

Reader Contribution by Cindy Dayton
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We’ve used a number of ways to harvest hay for our animals. All on them have been on the cheap. We own no hay fields, but that hasn’t stopped us from harvesting small grass plots and the occasional flush of a pasture that is too much for our animals to eat. Any sled full of hay we can harvest and store is one more we don’t have to buy.

Equipment. Our equipment shed holds a couple of scythes and yard rakes, which work just fine for cutting small plots or a little green feed for a few animals. Earlier this year, we picked up an antique garden tractor equipped with a sickle bar mower, and it’s been used to cut a surprising amount of excess pasture and forage in unfenced areas. Since we’re only cutting small lots of hay, handling and storing it loose and feeding it green by hand works quite well.

Ideal conditions. It doesn’t matter if you’re cutting small plots like we are or a large field — successful haying involves accurate weather forecasting and watchful management of the forage material. If you’re lucky, it all comes together at the same time — maturing, but not overripe grasses, a few consecutive days of warm weather with low humidity and the time and labor necessary to cut, turn, rake, and collect the hay. For quality hay, it’s important to not let the grasses get over-ripe, to keep rain off the cut hay and make sure it is thoroughly dry before you pick it up. If you do it right, you’ll have a nice harvest of sweet-smelling green hay that is crackly dry but not overly brittle and palatable and nutritious for your animals.

Timing. Our pastures came on strong this spring, yielding far more grass than our flock of sheep could eat. We kept them off one section of the pasture, keeping it instead for hay. By early June, it was ready to cut and the weather was perfect for drying and collecting hay. The tuned-up sickle bar mower proved to be a labor-saving device over a scythe. After the cut hay had dried for a day, we turned it by hand and allowed the bottom side to dry.

Collecting. Raking and collecting was also done by hand, and the sweet-smelling hay was pitched into an empty pen in the barn. We collected the equivalent of approximately 30 small bales of hay by cutting this section of pasture. It’s enough to make a meaningful contribution to the feed needs of our flock. Since it’s typical to harvest hay twice in a summer in our area, there’s possibility we’ll get a second cutting to add to the total.

No matter how you cut and harvest hay, haying is a labor-intensive endeavor. But you can do it on a small scale, without expensive equipment. A small-scale harvest, done twice over the course of a summer, can be enough to make a meaningful contribution to the feeding needs on the homestead.

Cindy Daytonis a shepherd and DIY enthusiast who raises Finnsheep and honeybees on a Western New York homestead that has been in her family since the 1950s. She and her husband tap maple trees for syrup, mill lumber and preserve much of their garden’s harvest. Read all of Cindy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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