Hay is something that the uninitiated tend to overlook when they begin their pursuit of farming. Not all hay is created equal. The Market Bulletin are full of ads for “cow” hay, “horse” hay and mulch hay with no mention of what grasses (or weeds) it is composed of. The producer generally calls hay “horse quality” because he limes, fertilizes and sprays the fields for weeds. In our area the hay is a mix of any of the following: bermuda/bahia/fescue/orchard/rye/johnson/crab grass. The “cow hay” has likely not been treated and often times is cut from a pasture that is used for grazing. The horse hay gets rushed to the barn for storage, the cow hay might sit out in the field a day or two before either being put up in a barn/shed or usually with round bales they’ll be covered with a tarp. Mulch hay is hay from several seasons ago that has lost it’s nutritional value. Many producers have mono-culture hay fields that are strictly for the purpose of growing hay. The grass in these fields are usually “improved” hybrids and here in the South, Bermuda is king. These fields are heavily fertilized and sprayed intensively for weeds and pests. Around here, if you want quality chemical free hay then you better buy some more land, a couple of tractors, a disk mower, hay rake, and a baler be it round or square.
Speaking of shapes. Hay bales come in two shapes, round and square. Before the baling machine, after cutting, hay was stacked in the fields to cure and then the farmer would pile this cured hay on a wagon to be hauled by horse/mule/oxen to the barn. With this methods, the hay would continue to cure in the stack. When the age of mechanized agriculture came to stay, the square baler was all that was known. The baler compressed the hay into a rectangular shape and then wrapped and tied twine around it before dropping it out the back of the machine. Because of its destiny to be compressed into a bale, the hay needs to be fully cured (dried) before baling. Hay is still going to have some moisture content (at least it should) when it’s baled and therefore care must be taken when storing it. If it is stacked too tightly with no available air circulation, the hay will begin to compost which generates heat. The heat can build to the point that the hay auto ignites and the nightmare of a barn fire becomes reality. Square bales generally promote a higher quality hay because of it’s greater surface area and the cut ends are exposed on the sides, allowing the bale to “breathe” and to dissipate moisture while in storage. The big problem with square bales is they require handling to move them. Once they drop out of the back end of the baler, a field hand must pick it up and stack it on something for transport to a barn for storage. The round bale is the answer to this problem. Now 20 times as much hay can be bundled together and with a large spear or fork attachment, the hay can be carried by tractor with little to no need to handle it manually. The problem with the round bale is that because of the reduced surface area, the hay must be cured extensively. All of the cut ends are wrapped up inside of the bale which doesn’t allow for much moisture dissipation. So as with most any thing else, there is some trade in quality for convenience and vice versa. Round bales are great for those on a tight budget and can be a good tool for improving poor pastures. Some people fret over the hay that the animals drop, step on, lay on, poop and pee on. If you pick the area to set the round bale, you will be adding very beneficial organic material to the soil that will promote a healthy layer of humus in the future. If you have an area you want for a future garden, fence it off, add round bale and cows and a year later you’ll have awesome tomatoes!
Grass isn’t the only vegetation that can be made into hay, legumes just as well can be made into hay with alfalfa being the most popular. Legumes have a higher nutrient content with protein being the most prevalent. For this reason, you need to treat legume hay as a supplement to your grazing animal’s diet, not as the primary source dry roughage. I usually feed my cows alfalfa with grass hay at a 1:3 ratio. Grazers need just good ole dry roughage to keep their digestive tract healthy. When we have particularly lush spring grass we have to keep our cows up a few hours eating hay to level out the moisture in their rumen. A common treatment for cows who are in danger of bloat, is to feed them chopped straw which absorbs the excess moisture which threatens to ferment which produces gas that the cow can’t belch out causing extremely uncomfortable swelling and if not noted early, can be life threatening.
So, the next time you drive past a field and see a fellow out on a tractor, mowing/raking /baling hay, you’ve little bit to think about.