Why should you make your own hay at your small farm? First, if you put up your own hay, you will not be at the mercy of other farmers, shortages or drought. Second, your herbivores, such as cows, goats and sheep, can live solely on fresh pasture and hay. Third, the majority of the current farming population is on the verge of retirement, which leaves a huge gap in the haymaking business that needs to be filled! A hay pasture is a huge lawn that needs tending, but mostly it needs to be cut. Cutting a field at the right stage of its growth (no matter what is planted in it) is going to yield something that livestock will eat.
Most fields are actually a good mixture of grasses and clovers. If you work with nature and fine-tune the fields as you go, your yields will be better and the quality will improve season over season. Most hay buyers get stuck on the kind of grass, clover or other legumes planted in the field. The farmer reacts by spraying a whole field with herbicide to kill what’s growing, then replants it with what he thinks people will buy. The field then takes 18 months to yield good hay. This is ludicrous, not to mention expensive. The truth is that you don’t have to have a field of just one or two grasses to make good hay. Herbivores like diversity in their forage. The only thing to worry about in a field of grasses, clovers and legumes is noxious weeds. Thistles, hemp dogbane, nightshade and milkweed are a few that should be removed from a field bound for hay. Removing them will take little more than a knife, or some plain white vinegar in a spray bottle, some gloves and taking a walk in the evenings on a regular basis to cut emerging weeds. Removing them makes room for other desirable plants to grow.
Your local Extension agent can help you figure out what is a noxious or poisonous weed versus a weed that is undesirable. He or she can also help you get soil samples and recommend seed types and amendments that work in your region.
Timing for Quality
There are three things I do on my farm that I believe make all the difference in the quality of my hay. I wait for three to four days of hot, dry weather in a row. I cut in the afternoon at the vegetative stage of the grasses’ growth and do not allow them to get long, stemmy and rank. I know that if I use these rules the hay will be cut at its most succulent and tastiest stage, after the plant has been photosynthesizing most of the day so the Brix (sugar) value is at its highest, and that I will have enough time to get the job done.A cow doesn’t care what species of grass is growing. All she cares about is that it tastes good. If it is too tall and fibrous, or wet and moldy, it won’t taste good. Also, when a pasture is cut at the vegetative stage, it grows back faster, is more robust and chokes out weeds. There are three main steps in the haymaking process: cutting, raking and baling. The rest involves allowing the fields to grow, overseeding new grasses to fill in the thin spots, fertilizing and amending the soil to help the fields be more productive.
Costs and Equipment
I am sure you are now asking “OK, now what am I going to need to make this ‘cheap’ crop?” There will be some investment. To run haymaking equipment, you will need a tractor that has about 50 hp (horsepower) at the PTO (power take-off). Most tractors today can run haymaking equipment, and you can pick up older models for a song that will do the job.
MOWERS: You will need a mower—either a sickle bar, disk mower, or haybine (also called a mower conditioner). A disk mower and haybine cut down the stalks right at the ground, at the right side of the tractor, while the sickle bar sits behind the tractor. A disk mower requires more help to hook it up than a sickle bar or a haybine, so consider that when thinking about a mower. A haybine is the most expensive and takes more horsepower—about 70 hp. It is a disk mower with a roller or flail that conditions the grasses and legumes, breaking the stalks so they dry more quickly, an important consideration.
RAKES: There are two types of rake, the side-delivery and the V-rake. Both work well. A side-delivery rake moves the hay from the swath (what’s left when you cut the hay) and delivers it to a neat pile as it flips over the swath to dry the other side. A V-rake takes the swath from either side and piles it into a row in the middle of the V-shape. The neat row of piled hay is called a windrow. If the windrow still needs more drying, or has been rained on a little, you use a tedder, which usually consists of baskets with fingers that spread the hay back out into a swath again to let it dry.
BALERS & BALING: After your hay is dry and crisp to the touch all the way through the windrow with no perceivable moisture, you are ready to bale. Never bale before noon is a good rule to follow. Waiting allows the dew to evaporate off of the windrow and creates the driest conditions possible for baling. There are two major types of balers: a square baler and a round one. If you have help and the place to store them, small square bales go for more money than round ones. Horse and goat owners make up most of the square-bale market and they expect well-cured, clean (no debris or noxious weeds), sweet smelling hay for their animals. Round bales are more practical for livestock, such as cattle, and the market for round bales is more lenient for new haymakers and diverse fields.
With a round baler remember to make a bale that your tractor can pick up, or you will have a hard time selling your hay because you can’t move it. A square baler is cheaper to purchase because it takes more labor to put up the bales. Fewer people are interested in taking up small, square bales of hay, which creates a gap in the market to fill. Most of the equipment you need can be found for scrap prices at auctions and through classified ads. You should be able to buy a beginner’s setup for haying square bales for around $3,000 if you already have a tractor that has about 50 horsepower at the PTO.
How much will this field make and what can I sell it for? Hay usually sells regionally for a going rate, which varies wildly from state to state. In 2013 I know friends who sold small squares in South Carolina for $11 to $16 a bale for first-cut grass hay. In my area here in Kentucky, I sell hay for $3.50 a bale for a small square in the field, and $4 a bale if I have to put it up in the loft. In Michigan, hay is now $5 to $10 dollars a bale for alfalfa and grass mix. The amount of bales a field can produce per acre also varies by location, rainfall and the overall care of the field.
Usually, a field will yield two cuts a year, the second cut making half the yield of the first. Let’s say your new 5-acre field will only produce 40 bales per acre, a very low figure. It will take about seven hours to cut, rake and small-square-bale the field. For the 200 bales you get, each bringing $4, that is $800 worth of hay. A typical cow needs about half a to a whole square bale a day. For me this means that for only seven hours of work and some fuel I have almost a year’s worth of feed for my cow. This does not take into account picking up and stacking the bales in the barn. In one to two hours, two boys can buck 200 bales.
Round bales are a lot less labor intensive, requiring no labor other than someone to drive the tractor, but they make fewer bales to sell. The USDA figures an acre of pasture in Hopkins County, Kentucky, should produce two 1,200-pound round bales per acre. I produce three to four per acre currently. So, on the same 5-acre field mentioned above, you could produce 10 bales of hay selling at anywhere from $30 to $45 in my area. After you have your hay up and your equipment put away, it’s time to market it, if you haven’t sold it already. The internet is a vast resource for selling just about anything. You can post listings on Craigslist (a good place to find used tractors and haymaking equipment). Word of mouth is also an excellent way to sell hay, and repeat buyers will help make it possible to avoid marketing the crop every year. And a website, no matter how simple, is better than no website at all.
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