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The Art of Making Hay

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I remember a conversation from last summer.

“Honey, do you want to be my “Rake Girl” tonight?” Mr. Corn Farmer sure knows how to make our marriage exciting.

When I pulled up to the alfalfa field, the radio sang, “It was just another night in the hayfield…”

It seemed to be a sign that, yes, I was going to be the “Rake Girl.” Except on that particular night, the hay was too wet, and thankfully I was able to rake it the next morning instead of late at night.

When we were first married, we raised over 1,500 acres alfalfa hay and supplied feedlots and dairies with large square bales. (An acre is about the size of a football field.) Sometimes I thought I was living alone as a newlywed – raising hay is time consuming! These days, we only raise as much alfalfa as we need for our own beef cattle herd, but it’s still an important function of our farm.

hayThere’s an art to putting up hay correctly. It has to be swathed at the proper time. Raked at the proper time. Baled at the proper time. All at the proper moisture level to ensure optimum preservation of nutrients for the livestock that ultimately consume it.

Sometimes the raking and baling of hay happens in the middle of the night to meet Mr. Corn Farmer’s standard of perfection!

We will get four or five cuttings of hay from an alfalfa field in any given year. A stand of alfalfa will last about five years, from the time it is planted until it is no longer adequately productive.

To put up a cutting of hay, we swath right before the alfalfa is in 10% bloom for best protein content when there’s no rain in the forecast. Typically, it takes around five days for the hay to dry between swathing and baling. There are many variables like wind, humidity, and size of the plants that influence this timeframe.

The hay is swathed into rows called “windrows,” and after it dries, it is raked. We monitor moisture carefully, because handling hay that is too dry often leads to loss of nutrient-rich leaves. Raking turns the windrow over, and we often do this to combine two windrows into one. This saves wear and tear on the baler, and cuts baling time in half, an important consideration if rain is on the horizon.

While we spend many nights praying for rain in south central Nebraska, the opposite is true when we have hay down. Rained-on hay has less nutritional value for our cows; or if we wanted to sell it, it would be worth considerably less. If we bale the hay when it’s a little high in moisture when rain looms on the horizon, it can spoil in the bale and is even less desirable as a nutrition source. Cows find it less palatable as well. On the other end of the spectrum, hay that is baled too dry can lead to too many stems and not enough leaves in the bale, and cows don’t find that too tasty either. While our kids are just happy to have a new row of playground equipment in the farm yard, there’s a sense of satisfaction from putting up a perfect bale of hay. The mama cows will be satisfied this winter too. When they’re lactating to feed their precious newborn calves next February, we’ll be glad we raked in the middle of the night – or any inconvenient time – to do all we can to provide them the best nutrition possible.