The Farm; Making Hay
We operate a very small farm, at just 28 acres. At first we just had a couple of miniature horses and a donkey, so we sold most of our hay. We baled small square hay bales which were easy to sell, and had much higher value than large rounds since anyone can handle them. In fact, we had every crop sold and paid for in advance by our regular customers. The problem with the small squares is that we are living in a lazy time, and we could not get help. Not one of our lazy assed neighbor boys will work. When I was younger, we couldn't wait for hay season, it was the gathering time of all the neighbors to help one another get their hay up, and we all made some cash. Not today, no one wants to do any physical work, I can't hire anyone for anything. The first question anyone asks is, "How hard is it". So, the moral of the story is, since I couldn't hire anyone to help with making small squares despite their high value, I have now started baling large rounds since I don't need any help to handle them. Also, I don't sell any since we need all we can bale for our growing herd.
The farm prior to our acquisition had been used as a grazing pasture for 25 head of beef cattle for about two years. Prior to that, it had been used for hay production and had been tilled and planted but with what, for how long and how often I don't know. It primarily contained tall fescue grass with a rich red and white clover mix. In a couple small areas there is some Johnson grass. As for weeds, there was a little Chickweed in some areas, and a lot of Buttercup where the previous farmer had feed large round bales of hay poluted with Buttercup seed. In observing and talking to other farmers I was unable to ascertain any facts as to hay needs, methods to deal with the pasture weeds, and so on. My neighbors also all farm, and they all have a serious pasture/hay field weed and feeding problem.
(In the photo to the left, a hay field infested with Buttercup) What I found interesting, is that everyone fertilizes their hay fields with the belief that cattle fed fertilized hay are worth more money. Also, at an auction, if a bale of hay is tagged as fertilized, it sometimes sells at a better price, though not always. Most local farmers don't understand that fertilizer improves the growth rate of whatever vegetation you have in the field. If you fertilize a field that is full of weeds, those weeds will grow faster and healthier thereby producing many more seeds for the next crop of weeds just as any other grasses will. This means that if 40% of your field is weeds, it will still be 40% weeds after you fertilize.
The Solution: Get rid of the weeds; fertilizer is expensive; why would you waste it on weeds. The most important issue in getting rid of weeds is that you must get rid of them in all of your fields; those producing hay as well as those utilized as pasture. If you don't, the seeds of weeds will be carried back and forth. Also, and of great importance; don't feed outside bring hay that is full of weed seeds into your pastures (crap hay bought from ignorant producers). The Herbicide 24D will take care of all your weed problems, but will likely require the reseeding of clover afterwards. After ridding your pastures of weeds, then you can fertilize if you so desire, but fertilizer is expensive, and there is a better way. The manure and urine of livestock contains all the nutrients your fields need; utilize it!! For example, cattle return 79%N, 66%P, and 92%K of what they consume back to the pasture; this is an incredible and free return. To take advantage of this you need to establish a pasture rotation system that accomplishes what you need. I have my hay fields fenced, and after my last hay cutting in the fall, I rotate the cattle, through these fields until the end of any new growth.
Over grazing: Over grazing is a serious problem in most pastures, and is worse when cattle are accompanied by horses and donkeys. Equine are extremely hard on an overgrazed pasture because unlike cattle which do not have upper incisors and the ability to fully expose their teeth, equine have both of these traits which enables them to be able to nip vegetation right at the surface thereby destroying the crown of the plant. An overgrazed cattle only pasture will recover in the current season if the cattle are removed in the spring. A pasture overgrazed by equine will take two full growing seasons to recover, and may even need replanting to control the species recovered since the seeds of weeds may establish before the previous plants can recover.
Pasture and hay needs: Cattle and normal-size horses will need a full acre per head for grazing, and another full acre for hay. The actual size of the animals is relative to the need. If the animals are permitted on the whole plot, the needs will be greater since they will overgraze some areas, and undergraze other areas. Why? Neither animal will eat the rich grass where they have deposited their excrements. I think this is because they smell their excrement and therefore don't want to eat it. This is where rotational grazing comes into play; while they are off one plot, their excrement is washed in and they will eat this rich forage later, and the overgrazed portion will recover quite rapidly if they didn't spend an extensive period of time on it.
Cost of harvesting your own hay crops as opposed to buying hay
We are now entering our sixth year on the farm, and through the past five years, we have maintained very detailed records. We have tracked and documented every dimension of the farming process. For our first two years, we baled hay in small squares since they are cheaper and easier to handle requiring smaller tractors and generally less expensive equipment. It only takes a 40-horse tractor to drive a small square baler, where it takes a 70-horse tractor to drive a large round baler. Because we didn't have many cattle, we produced a lot more hay than we could use, and we supplemented our income with hay sales. Small square hay bales are easy to sell, and bring a premium price especially since our hay was cut at prime growth intervals and with minimal weed content. We were actually able to pre-sell all of our hay crops sometimes even months ahead of cutting. We also experienced very minute waste feeding high quality small squares in enclosed feed bins.
We did however, encounter a problem with small squares. The problem was that it was very difficult for my wife and I to handle the volume (picking up, stacking on wagons, unloading in the barn etc.), and storage was a problem since we had inadequate indoor storage space (we had to use to much of the barn where we needed to keep the equipment out of the weather). We talked to many of the neighbor boys about working for us, and despite offering $9 per hour, no one would show up for the two to three days every couple of months that we needed help. It puzzles me the poor work ethic we have today; they all complained that the work was to hard.
As a result of the problems of handling small square hay bales, we finally submitted to baling large round bales. Of course this meant purchasing larger equipment including a tractor that would drive the baler.
The cost of the equipment needed to bale large rounds: Larger tractor - $8000; Conditioner - $3750; Baler - $3600; Rake - $1500; for a total of $16,850. The money spent on equipment would have bought 561 bales of hay which would have fed 93 cattle for one season, or in our case, the average herd of 12 for 7.8 years.
The question then becomes, is it worth it? What is the benefit of cutting our own hay, and does it outweigh the cost? The biggest advantage of cutting our own hay is that we can control the quality. Better quality means less waste, and also less weed management in our own fields which means better grazing quality. Both equal savings which in turn reduces the costs of cutting our own hay. The cost of poor quality or poorly managed hay is 15-30% in losses. With this knowledge, the above hay example would only feed our herd for 5.5 years.
Another consideration is the cost of additional weed management caused by bringing in outside weedy hay. The overall cost of spraying the fields is $10 per acre. If you feed weedy hay, the weeds overtake the feeding area, and also everywhere the animal drops a turd. Everywhere weeds take over is an area grass does not grow; therefore your pasture area decreases rapidly if you don't manage weeds, which in turn requires more hay. If you will feed outside hay, you must address weeds every year whereas if you feed weed free hay, you only need to address the overall pasture area for weeds every few years with intermediate spot treatments as needed. It is for these reasons that we decided to bale our own hay.
In baling hay for the last four years, we determined that the actual cost of baling large rounds is $4 per bale. This means that if the average sale price of a large round bale is $30, we save $26 per bale. This also means that in another two years, our equipment will have paid for itself. We keep our equipment well maintained, and in the barn out of the weather which eliminates most maintenance issues, so it looks and functions as good today as it did the day we bought it.
Results of Burning: When we bought the farm, we had a lot of thick old growth vegetation. After significant research on the wisdom and results of burning fields, we decided to proceed and see just how much information was factual. Here are the results. Some information regarding why re-growth looks greener was extremely conflicting. I read an article from Canada that stated the reason for the apparent rich verdant growth after burning was due to the contrast of the new green grass growing over the black burned ground. We found this to be completely false. The blackness (ash) was washed into the soil with the first rain, leaving only the brown color of the natural ground shown through grass crowns. The re-growth was actually slower than I had anticipated; taking nearly 60 days to completely return. But return it did; the hay crop was far greater and nicer than any of the ground which we had not burned.
Cutting height of hay: The effect of cutting height, and rate of growth return when cutting hay is huge. My dad always stressed this, so when we purchased our cutter, I set it from the two inch lowest setting it came on to four inches. By not cutting at the crowns, we noticed two improvements. First, cutter repairs were almost non-existant. Secondly, the recovery rate was literally overnight, wheras our neighbors who had scalped the crowns at 2-inches were much slower to recover.
With the improvements we have alreasy made, in conjunction with selling the equine, we have been able to increase the cattle herd to 10 breeding cattle on our 28 acres of which 6 is wooded, and four are otherwise occupied with buildings etc. END