06 Sep Hay Making Fever
We harvest much of our hay from Boxford fields. It is important when our draft horses eat about a bale of hay each, every day. That is 730 bales each year just for the horses, to say nothing of our sheep flock.
We hay roughly twenty acres of public and private land around Boxford. At many sites we add compost and grass seed to boost the fertility and ecology of the field. In this climate we can cut our twenty acres twice a year, once in late spring and another in the summer. Each cutting usually averages 300 bales, at forty to forty-five pounds apiece. This year we had an exceptionally productive spring cut of 400 bales because of the heavy Spring rains. Unfortunately, the summer drought has balanced out the scales. In most of our fields the grass has not grown enough for a second harvest.
Haymaking has always been an essential practice for farmers, especially small family farmers like the Townes, who owned the ifarm land for over 150 years (1777-1934). It gave their livestock quality roughage so they could be productive throughout the year.
“Spontaneous” Combustion and Hay Fires
The process of harvesting and drying large quantities of hay outdoors involves many steps! The challenge is ensuring the whole hay harvest, spread over an entire field, dries effectively. For small square bales, the moisture content must be below 25%. If not, we can lose the harvest to decomposition. Additionally, decomposing bacteria can create temperatures greater than 180°F and cause hay bales to “spontaneously” combust! That is the origin of hay fires.
The Process of Making Hay
While it is mechanized today, the process of haying is very similar to the way it was done 100 years ago. There are specific steps to the process, steps that were developed many centuries ago to dry large quantities of hay right in the field.
- The farmer times the harvest to have a few days of clear weather.
- The hay is cut and left scattered out on the field. The harvest is done in the afternoon. At that time, the plants have been converting sunlight into energy for most of the day and their sugar (energy) content is highest.
- The hay is “wuffled” or aerated to help it dry more efficiently. Today, we use a “tedder” with moving forks to aerate the hay.
- The hay is left to dry for a day. If the cutting is very thick, it may need to be aerated a second time by the tedder and left to dry for a third day.
- At this point, the hay is mostly dry. By the second or third day it is raked into “windrows,” rows of fluffed hay that are further dried by the wind.
- The hay is baled and stored when sufficiently dried. Today we use a hay baler that compacts and ties up the hay.
Then, of course, comes all the moving, stacking and storing. There is more to harvesting hay that meets the eye! We love the process, work-intensive as it is; it feels great to provide sustainable hay for our animals while keeping our local fields healthy. It is also a kind of mindfulness practice, with many moving parts that demand attention and present moment awareness.
Draft-Powered Hay Making
We look forward to haying with our draft horses, Pitch and Patch! We hope to work up to it in the next year, though the process is determined by what feels safe and appropriate, not our checklist. That will be the next step in sustainable haymaking! We try to ensure that our operation is as green as possible. Read here for information on our net-positive solar array.