Dear Chicken Lady, I’m visiting my cousins on the farm and they are going around humming some strange tune and singing “Make hay when the sun shines.” The kids are all groaning and in a bad mood about it and I’m wondering if I should offer to help except I don’t understand what the problem is. It is really toasty hot here so maybe that’s why they are grouchy. One of the kids said they would be heartbroken but would let me take their place on the hay wagon, and I thought that was a generous offer until I heard the others snickering.Sincerely, Wanna Help Make Hay But Is That Going To Be a Big Mistake?
Dear Big Mistake, Hey, it’s a given that if you have three days of sun and it’s incredibly hot that it is time to make hay. And I really mean make hay while the sun shines because wet hay is pretty worthless, as well as potentially dangerous as a fire hazard and mold producer. For urban chicken farmers this is as true as for your hayseed cousins down on the farm because if you have a lawn of green grass, even with some clover and weeds you too can make hay just from the grass you let grow too long before you get around to mowing it (just make sure it didn’t have any herbicides or insecticides applied to it).
I bet you are hearing words like rake and bale, tedder and crimp, haybine, windrow, etc. A hay-making family has their own lingo for the job and their schedule will revolve around that field of dried grass that they want to fill the barn up with. Other plans will have to wait because once the hay is cut, it must be baled and stored before it rains or lose much of the nutrition it is full of from sitting out in the sun. No excuses, no great company who planned to see you six months ago will change that schedule because delays result in problems.
For the big hay producer you will want to cut the hay when you hope you know it will have time to dry before you bale it. Rain affects that drying time. Fields where the ground is saturated from lots of rain, or heavy dewfalls at night will also require longer drying times. Depending on the weather conditions, as well as how thick and tall the hay is, you will need to rake the hay usually the next day and bale on the third day. There is nothing more depressing for the hay enthusiast than to go to the meadow one morning and see the leaf hoppers got the field before you got it cut and baled. Wait too long before cutting the hay and the alfalfa will have bloomed, with stalks too long and leggy to have the good leafy material.
The schedule that rules the hay producer’s life depends on what kind of hay you have from bromegrass to timothy, alfalfa to the five kinds of clover hays, oat hay, bermuda grass hay and the list goes on. The kind of hay you need depends on what you are feeding. Dairy cattle need the alfalfa hay’s protein but if harvested too late you lose quality and have to supplement with grains. Red clover hay can cause the “slobbers” as well as red urine in horses, not a condition you want your prize thoroughbred to be suffering from. Since we were just growing hay to feed to the geese, the avian version of a goat, it shouldn’t have mattered much except that we also wanted to sell some of the hay and the buyers are rightly concerned about the kind and quality they are getting.
The major amount of groaning from all the helpers lined up for the job comes when it is time to bale and store the hay. Trying to find a kid to help is worse than finding a needle in a haystack. By the time the hay is ready, the weather has gotten progressively hotter and muggier. Bales of hay have sharp pokey ends sticking out of them. If you don’t wear long sleeves, preferably flannel, and sturdy jeans, you will have a rash all over any exposed areas of skin, while the hay making process kicks up lots of dust so a bandanna around your mouth and nose is also desirable. You can try to apply sunscreen but I guarantee you will sweat so much that it won’t be of much use. This mode of attire also contributes to the less than cheerful attitude among the help based on the idea that it is way too hot for this job and going to the lake would be a lot more fun.
The job isn’t done once the hay is baled unless you have been lucky enough to have a customer who will come and pick it up out of the field. It also has to be loaded so it can be unloaded and put up in the barn, up on the second floor where it is even hotter than out in the fields. There is an art to having your hay stacked correctly, both on the wagon and in the barn, and brain damage from overheating is no excuse if you do it incorrectly so hurrying is also not okay.
For urban farmers who want to store the excess hay from their newly-mown lawn, just rake it to turn it at least twice and let dry for a day or until dry but still green. Take your pitchfork to load it in a wagon, and pile it high on a skid in a shed as you don’t want it to sit on the ground where it soaks up moisture and spoils. Let it continue to dry for a week or two and cover with a tarp to protect it until winter when it is a treat for the birds to scratch in.
In the end, we got rid of the hay equipment. It turns out that like anything else with moving parts, hay equipment, particularly of the vintage variety is prone to breakdowns. That on top of trying to find someone to help, the fact that hay makes a terrible bedding so we stuck with straw, the geese wasted more than they ate, a bale of hay never sells for what the paper says the going price is so equipment repair costs ate up any profit meant it was time to let someone else have the joys of a romp in the hay.
There are plenty of benefits. It’s a great workout (why do you think Iowa produces so many great wrestlers?), the hay wagon is great for hay rides, you get out of cooking dinner after a day making hay, and when you finally hit the hay you will feel like you earned that good night’s sleep. We have some outstanding memories such as the night there were so many fireflies that they ended up in the bales of hay and lit the wagon up as well as the fields. Our meadow sits low, surrounded by hills and trees so there is always a pair of hawks circling high and calling. The barn swallows come from Briar Road West’s barns to swoop in and catch the abundance of bugs the baler kicks up, the deer stand and watch, unafraid until we are so close we could almost touch them and the sky always has spectacular sunsets on baling day.
There was the time we had a groundhog living in the field and we didn’t have to have a wheel of a fully loaded hay wagon fall in his excavated home to know that would be a big problem. It took several weeks to encourage the family to move. Loud explosive items dropped down their tunnel were tried; when they exploded the sound came out at the other end of the field after traveling through their extensive network of tunnels and echoed around the meadow. Lots of digging and filling in holes didn’t work either but something finally made life there intolerable and the family moved on.
Leave the bales of hay on the ground overnight and you may find a family of garter snakes or some mice have moved in trying to avoid the eye of the hawks. It’s a field full of life and the hay you store to get your animals through the winter will remind you of sun and green growing grasses when everything outside is buried in snow. Sincerely, Chicken Lady
P.S. No matter how tired you are do not fall asleep in the hay or on the hay bales. They are full of life, including bugs that bite and cause itchy red welts all over your body, the final insult to a long hot day. Remember to hydrate and go have fun for it’s an experience not many people have the joy of participating in.