Make hay while the sun shines

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write at three different points this summer. Not coincidentally, that is the exact number of times the Dairy Man and company have cut hay. Now, as we start thinking about our fourth and final hay cutting of the season, it’s finally time to explain this crazy process. Get ready for me to drop some serious ag-knowledge on you.

Three to four times a summer, I lose my husband to the hay monster.

I’m happy to say that hay cutting only lasts a few days (as opposed to a few weeks of corn harvest), but what it lacks in duration, it makes up for in insanity. During hay cutting, the Dairy Man routinely sits in a tractor into the wee hours of the night and never has a break longer than 20 minutes at a time.

Poor, naïve me didn’t know a thing about hay cutting until this year. The Dairy Man and I married late in the summer of 2010 and thus I dodged the bullet for one more year. But I was quickly brought up to speed this year.

First and foremost, these are hay bales.

Aren’t they lovely? There is something about a nice bale of hay lounging in a kelly green field that just epitomizes the country life. But how did these bales get here? What are they used for? And where do they go?

Hay/grass/alfalfa is used for animal feed. Specifically for our dairy, we add hay silage to our cow feed ration. (Don’t worry if that term doesn’t mean anything to you. Someday I will bore you all silly with a description of a feed ration. Get pumped.) Farmers cut hay 1-4 times each summer—depending on heat and rainfall—or approximately every 30 days.

So, what exactly goes into the process of cutting hay? I thought you’d never ask.

Each farmer is a little different, but our (and I use the word “our” in the loosest sense of the word. I’m a supportive observer. Maybe I should switch my pronoun to “his”?) haying process has five steps.

First, we cut the hay down in the field. Second, we wait for the hay to dry.

Third, the hay is raked or merged using a big machine (this helps to dry it out).

Fourth, the hay is baled or chopped. Fifth, if the hay is chopped, it is loaded into ag bags (pictured below) to be mixed into feed during the winter. Bales are stacked in the barn to be used for immediate feeding.

Jersey the dog really enjoys this part.

The Dairy Man and family both bale and chop hay. Personally, I’m partial to the bales. They’re so pretty. I have  this insatiable desire to try and roll one down the hill.

I was a journalism minor in college, so naturally I had a few questions for the Dairy Man after he explained this process. I won’t always get this detailed in my farming 101 explanations, but perhaps it will be interesting to learn about the iconic hay bales you may see whilst driving through the boondocks.

Why do you have to wait for the hay to dry?
Because hay can spontaneously combust if it is too wet. Yes. Combust. As in light on fire. Burn the barn down. On a less dramatic side, it can also get moldy.

How long will the hay sit in the ag bag before it becomes cow food?
Hay needs to ferment in the bags for a few months before it is usable in feed.

 Why can’t you just cut hay once? Why on earth do we keep cutting it, letting it grow, and cutting it again? This is craziness!
You have to cut the hay before it blossoms. Once the stalks bloom, they start to allocate nutrients towards seeding and reproduction—thus depleting the nutritional value of the hay. Since we want our ladies to eat spinach instead of iceberg lettuce (yes, that’s an analogy; the cows don’t eat salads), we cut the hay when it is full of nutrients.

Why do you have to work like a madman to get the hay in rather than spreading the process out over a number of days?
The farmers are trying to stay ahead of the rain. Once the hay is cut, you don’t want it to get rained on. If the hay is rained on, the nutrients can drain out of the hay and it becomes worthless. That’s why they will work until 2 a.m. or for 16 hours straight.

While there are many intricacies of haying I’m probably leaving out, this is the jist. Even a modern farm wife should have some idea what goes on around the farm, right? I’ll give you a minute to recover from all of this new knowledge.

Now, on to corn harvest. Oh boy.

19 thoughts on “Make hay while the sun shines

  1. I wish I would have had all this information as a little girl. I saw all this happen in the fields but the bales were square and not round. Had no idea why it happened so frequently. Thanks Jess, I like being taught by my granddaughter.

  2. I read this as my dairy farming husband is packing corn silage on our bunker. That craziness started yesterday, and our normally calm, dusty lane now looks like an interstate with all of the tractors and silage wagons. I’m hoping to see my husband for more than 5 minutes sometime Thursday or Friday. 🙂

      1. We’re in the process of building a new barn for our milk cows. It is exciting, but oh the added stress! They started moving dirt and digging a second lagoon (for a flush system) while they were doing corn silage. Concrete work has been intertwined with a 5th(!!!) cutting of hay (chopping and putting in silo), harvesting the few acres of beans we have out, and the thought of shelling corn (moisture is still too high). The barn is going to make our usually calmer winter just as busy as the rest of the time. I’m sure we’ll survive 🙂 Good luck with yours:)


  3. This post would have been so useful last summer (my first summer with my dairy farmer). I never understood the steps until recently either. I have taken to riding on the tractor with my guy just so I can spend some time with him!

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