July 8, 2012

Haymaking can be a challenge

Peter Hagar, Cornell Ag Connection

---- — Make hay when the sun shines. 

That sounds easy, but when the forecast changes every couple of days it doesn’t give the part-time farmer much leeway. This past week I used my vacation time as an opportunity to mow hay. While the quality will not be as good, late June/early July weather is more consistently hot and dry than late May or early June. 

For almost a week, the weather held out. On my final field, the forecast cautioned of afternoon thundershowers. I hooked up the mower and spent the afternoon cutting about seven acres of hay. Part of this hay I would bale into small square bales for our four ponies and the rest would be stored away for the beef cows. After tedding the hay to fluff it up and raking it into long spiraling windrows for baling, I had spent many hours on our old tractor. When the last bale was baled, the hay all loaded, and the wagons were backed into the shed, it was a very satisfying feeling.

Within an hour of completing the whole process, it started to sprinkle and then rain; little more than 48 hours after I began.

Without the weather technology that we enjoy today, it probably would not have turned out this well. Not too long ago, farmers would have to gamble on the weather using experience, the farmer’s almanac and local weather history. Today, farmers and growers have access to an amazing number of weather forecasting and monitoring services.

The National Weather Service has a network of 122 local weather-forecast offices covering the United States. Local weather forecasts and live radar images are available via the Internet at any time. All this available technology helps farmers make informed decisions about when to mow hay and plan their harvest. And while it is a great benefit, it can sometimes be frustrating to see the forecast change from one hour to the next.

For the small, part-time farmer putting up dry hay for a few horses, goats or beef cows, the weather is still a major obstacle. Timing the harvest for the weekend or arranging a few days off to bale hay does not always work out. Baling dry hay usually requires a couple of hot sunny days to bring the grass down from 70 percent to 15 to 18 percent moisture content.

While waiting for more consistent hot and dry weather in July would be more reliable, getting the first cutting in the barn in May or June yields a much higher quality feed. After a certain point, feed value and digestibility drop on a daily basis as the hay matures. For adult beef cows or mature horses, later-cut hay may be sufficient to meet their maintenance requirements, but young or growing livestock and horses need higher protein and energy forages to thrive.

One pitfall that many small and beginning farmers make is over investing in haying equipment. While making good hay is very satisfying, the cost of all the equipment necessary to reliably mow, rake and bale a small crop may not be cost effective. Buying hay from a larger farmer who already has the land base, the equipment and know how is often a better deal in the long run.

One benefit of purchasing hay is that you will also be importing and adding nutrients to your pastures and fields. After a winter of feeding large round bales to my beef cows, I have noticed a significant improvement in the thickness and quality of the pasture, simply due to the manure and hay residue spread naturally by the cattle.

Regardless of whether you raise your own hay or buy it from a neighboring farm, harvesting quality forages for dairy cows, beef cattle, horses and other livestock has and will continue to be an important part of farming in Clinton County each year. Our cool, moist climate is ideal for the growing of forages such as grass, clover and alfalfa that feed the dairy cattle that are the mainstay of our local agricultural economy.

So when you see a farmer out baling hay, know that a lot of time, effort and worrying about the weather were all invested from start to finish.

Peter Hagar, agriculture program educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Rt. 22, Plattsburgh, 12901. Call