Monday, August 12, 2013

Making hay in western Washington

Growing up, summer meant hay season and show season. When we were little, Grandpa would always take us with him on the tractor when he was raking hay. It was great quality time with him and as we got older, we took on added responsibilities on the farm such as driving tractor, loading hay and helping with whatever needed to be done. My brother is a crop farmer and tells you all about hay season in our corner of the world below. 

What months are considered “hay season”?

My brother with one of his tractors

This depends on the weather. In some parts of the country, hay season can start in April or May. Around here, it typically starts in June or July. It could be earlier if the weather is good and it’s not raining the entire spring. Hay season usually goes until September.

How do you know when grass hay is ready to be cut?

In our area, good hay-making weather can be hard to come by. If we get a window of good weather, we cut hay. Besides good weather, we also need to know what stage the grass is in. We don’t want it to be over ripe and want to cut it before the grass starts producing seed. Ideally in the early stages of seed development. Feed value decreases when the plant spends more energy on seed production and takes energy away from the stem.

How many cuttings do you typically get per year?

This depends on when we get our first cutting. Some years it may be in May, other years in July. This is significantly impacted by the weather. For the various cuttings, we do a mix between grass silage, hay and pasturing cows on the field.

Right now, we are on our 4th cutting for this summer. We are expecting to cut the next cutting around the third week of August.

What are the steps involved in making hay?

There is a lot involved in making hay. First, you have to make sure that the ground is dry enough. Muddy ground won’t make good hay.

Once the ground is ready and the grass hay is at the right stage to be cut, the first thing we do is mow it. We use a large mower that we attach to the tractor. After it is mowed, we touch it as minimally as possible for a little while to reduce color damage.

If there are clumps in the hay, we ted it. This helps dry the hay out, fluffs it up and improves the consistency. Ideally, we would just ted it once the day before we rake it.

Raking the field moves the hay into windrows to prepare it to be baled. If it’s dry enough, we bale hay the same day it is raked.

Baling hay (small square bales)
We bale small square bales and manually load them onto trailers to take to the barn.

A full load of hay ready to be unloaded
Just like other plants, grass needs to be fertilized. We spread cow manure on the fields as fertilizer between cuttings. This recycles valuable nutrients and helps the plant and soil thrive. It also reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.

What do you want the general public to know about hay farming?

Moving the tractor across town to do hay
Farmers work hard to take care of their animals and making hay ensures we have enough nutritious feed for our cows year round.  Along with farming comes an increase in farm equipment on the roads. Farmers do their best to stay out of your way, but if you come across a tractor on the road, please slow down and be cautious. Also, as my sister always says, if you have questions about farming, please ask!  

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