Haymaking combines science and art. Old-timers knew just the right feel of hay before it was ready to be put into the barn. It’s hard to quantify that judgment with mechanical instruments. The goal of haymaking is to capture the nutrients in grass in a storable form to make them available as a forage feed in the winter months.
With the variables of New England weather, many farmers have switched to hay crop silage as a way to harvest legumes and grasses. In that process the hay is cut and wilted, and then chopped and preserved by fermentation in the silo or wrapped into large round bales. But there’s still a need for dry hay. It offers a practical way to raise young calves and feed roughage in small-scale livestock operations.
One of the most critical factors in making quality dry hay is timing. Producers need to time haymaking to coincide with the right stage of plant growth and weather conditions. The old-timers used to talk about cutting hay around the Fourth of July, when they said, “it was stout and had some bottom to it.” Although maximum growth of the plant and peak yields occur around that time, the nutrient value is greatest earlier in the season, when plants put most of their energy into vegetative growth and contain high concentrations of starches, proteins and minerals.
As plants mature, their lignin content (a component of fiber) increases and traps the nutrients within indigestible cell walls. Although cutting hay early will result in lower yields, the increase in nutritive value will compensate for reduced yields. The second, third and fourth cuttings that grow back are leafy and high in quality, and often harvested when the weather is hotter, making the hay easier to cure.
Sometimes growers need to make a little sacrifice by getting an early first crop from the field during periods of rainy, early summer weather in order to get the next crop growing.
One important part of timeliness is having the equipment maintained and ready to go when the grass is ready. The winter months are a good time to check equipment over and replace any worn or broken parts. A delay in harvest caused by an equipment breakdown can never be made up. It’s good to have an early start date for haying just to get things ready. Shoot for a goal of May 15 in southern areas, and May 25 farther north, even though conditions may not be right at that time every year.
The maturity of the grass is the determining factor for when to start mowing the first field of the season. The grass should be in the early vegetative stage and not headed out, with enough growth to make mowing worthwhile.
Time your mowing around the most reliable weather forecast you can find. It basically takes about three days of good weather to cure hay, which can be a challenge in late May or early June. A good strategy is to mow a day before or immeditately after it rains, because of the likelihood of good weather for the next few days.
Some people like to mow early in the morning to gain almost a day of drying time. Others prefer to mow at the end of the day, when the grass is drier, in an attempt to increase the energy level of the forage by capturing some of the sugars that migrate up the plant stem during the day.
Sickle mower: One of the earliest methods of mechanically mowing hay, the sickle mower is still used today, typically in small haying operations or for clipping pastures. These generally have a 5- to 7-foot-long cutter bar.
The sickle mower has a few disadvantages:
- Clogs easily with thick grass and hay that is bent over;
- Has a limited swath width; and
- Can’t crimp or squeeze the grass stalks (to improve drying) in one operation.
Sickle haybine: As the next development in haymaking, the sickle haybine greatly improved the mowing process. It uses the sickle bar technology, but has a front reel that lifts up bent over stalks and allows it to be pulled at a faster speed. In addition, the sickle haybine has a built-in crimper that cracks open the grass stems to condition the hay for quicker drying. It also deposits the hay out the back into a gathered swath. These are used on many midsized farms.
Rotary disc mower: The industry standard in recent years, a rotary disc mower consists of several rotary discs equipped with small knives at the bottom that spin at a very high speed. These mow through thick hay well and can be pulled at higher speeds than conventional style mowers. The small blades are inexpensive and can be replaced when dull. If something is hit in the field, it usually only affects one unit, minimizing repairs. The disc mower can also be outfitted with a crimper, which deposits the hay in a gathered swath. Rotary disc mowers have a good turning radius and come in models that will mow swaths from 6 feet up to 10 to 16 feet.
Once the hay starts to dry, it needs to be worked to promote curing. Tedding, the next step in haymaking, fluffs up the cut hay and allows the air and sun to contact the undersurfaces to promote drying. Some people ted immediately after mowing to spread out the swath.
Hay tedders are generally wide units with several orbital wheels that lift the hay as they turn. Some styles have horizontal bars with teeth on a spinning reel.
Hay mowed early in the morning could be tedded that afternoon, as long as the mowed swath is dry on the top surface. It may require a second tedding the next day to speed up the drying process. Too much tedding can shatter the leaves of alfalfa or clover, lowering the quality of the hay. Proper tedding can be the key to timely haymaking.
Once the hay has been tedded and is nearly dry, it’s ready to rake. Raking turns the hay one more time to dry the bottom and forms it into a windrow ready to be baled. The windrows shouldn’t be rolled too tightly, as this creates a roping effect that prevents the hay from drying properly and causes it to clog as it enters the baler.
As a rule of thumb, wait to rake hay until after the dew has dried and the sun nears its peak, around 11 a.m. If possible, let the raked hay sit for an hour or two before baling to allow more drying time.
Haymakers have several types of rakes available. The old style side-delivery rake, which can be PTO or ground-driven, is pulled at an angle to the tractor and has several rows of teeth on multiple reels that roll the hay into a windrow. A pinwheel rake consists of four or five large wheels with teeth mounted on them. The wheels turn by friction as the rake is pulled over the field. Newer types of rakes have a series of rotary wheels that pull the hay together into a windrow. And some tedders are designed so they can be converted to a raking mode.
Most haymakers rake the outside swath in first, going counterclockwise around the perimeter of the field. Then they reverse directions and roll the first windrow to the outside and continue in clockwise circles around the field. Some prefer to re-rake the first and second windrows inwards after the rest of the hay is baled to allow additional drying and to make an easier passage with the baler.
Photo by LUGO/iStockphotography.com