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Making Good Quality Hay for Horses

Updated on November 20, 2014

Secrets of an Iowa Hay Farmer

I've been making hay to sell for horse feed for several years. Most farmers that raise hay in my area grow it for slaughter livestock, so they have different ideas about what makes hay desirable. I've learned by experience how to bale hay that is desirable to horse owners, and it brings a premium price. Now I'm sharing my secrets with you, so you can learn from my trial and error experience.

My hay-making experience is based in northwest Iowa. I'm sure that best practices will be different for other regions due to differences in weather and productive varieties of hay for your area. So find a local dairy farmer, or your local agriculture college extension office, to quiz about tips for making hay in your own region.

All copyrights are retained by the artist, Mona Majorowicz of Wild Faces Gallery.

The artwork or content in this lens may not be used or reproduced, either in part or in whole, without the express written consent from the artist.

Predicting Good Haying Weather

Make hay when the sun shines. But start watching the weather long before it's time to cut hay. Begin to notice weather patterns and get a feel for how likely it is to rain based on forecasts. I use the 7 Day Forecast and Hourly Weather Graph.

The two prediction methods I use are:

  1. The weather tends to follow a trend of raining more often or less often than what the forecasts predict. So if the weather man predicts wet weather and it doesn't rain, then the next time he predicts 50% chance of rain, the actual chances of rain are more like 30%.
  2. These trends of being drier or wetter than the weather forecasts tend to change 2 days before the moon cycles. And there's almost always a better chance of rain during the full moon. So if it's a rainy spell between the first and second quarter of the moon. I tend to not look for a chance to cut hay until a few days before the second quarter arrives.

Following these two methods, I try to wait for a dry spell where it's obvious that it's not gonna rain because trend is to be drier than predicted, and the weather forecast is not predicting rain anyway.

I tend to cut hay based on the weather patterns instead of trying to cut it on the 1st of each month. I commonly bale alfalfa hay anywhere from 3 - 6 weeks of growth. But sometimes, even though you know it's likely to rain, you just gotta cut it anyway because it starts getting rank and losing leaves at the bottom of the plant. You're better off trying to pick a time when you think it will only rain a little instead of a lot so you can let the field start regrowing for the next cutting. 100% grass hay is much more flexible, two cuttings a season is fine.

Hay needs wind to cure in the field before baling. So also pay attention to the wind speeds predicted in the weather forecast. Really windy days make for quick drying, and messy windrows. The good news is that it doesn't take much wind, anything to help the air penetrate the windrows. On a completely still day though, only the tops of the windrows dry, and underneath stays tough.

Weather Stations For Tracking Weather While Hay Making

Keeping a close eye on weather conditions helps you tune into, and predict local weather patterns.

What is Hay Conditioning?

Conditioning hay removes part of the waxy coating on the plant to allow faster drying. Basically it accomplishes this by just rubbing the plant a little bit, most often right after the hay is cut. Hay conditioners that use rollers don't actually squeeze moisture out of the plant, they just rough it up a bit.

I use a tedder to condition my hay. It has rotating tines that sweep the hay along the ground and throw it in the air behind it. If I was to buy different hay equipment, I would probably choose something that mows, conditions and windrows the hay all in the same operation. This would cut down on my labor and save fuel because with my current equipment, I have to travel over the field 3 times, (once for each step), to accomplish something that could be done in one pass.

photo by Mona Majorowicz
photo by Mona Majorowicz

When is Hay Ready to Bale?

A local dairy farmer once told be that he judges when hay is ready to bale by feeling it. He picked up a handful of hay from the windrow, dropped it on the ground, and said, "Yup, it's ready." I was new to haying at the time and that just plain wasn't helpful.

My Bicycle Hay Test

Pick up small bunch of hay that you can easily hold between your thumb and forefinger. Grasp it with both hands, about 3-4 inches apart. Move your left hand up, and your right hand down. Now while grasping the hay, rotate both hands in a circle like you're pedaling a bicycle by hand.

The stems of conditioned alfalfa hay will break or snap. The stems of unconditioned alfalfa do not break when it's ready to bale, so I always try to ted my alfalfa, so I don't have to guess. If you do this test with grass and the leaves break, the hay is dryer than it needs to be and will tend to crumble when baling. I have to admit, that I tend to judge grass more by the feel. I probably base it on how scratchy it feels in my hands when I test it.

Unfortunately, many times it's by guess and by golly. If rain is coming, you can sometimes get away with baling hay sooner. The bicycle hay test isn't 100% reliable, but it's a good way to get a better feel for it.

Hay Making by Verlyn Klinkenborg

Making Hay
Making Hay

From the wonders of alfalfa, the "miracle plant," to barbed wire, dances at VFW halls, and the myriad difficulties of operating tractors and siderakes, renowned author Verlyn Klinkenborg paints a stunning and memorable portrait of American family farms and the fascinating characters who work them. MAKING HAY gives us an unforgettable glimpse of everyday life on the family farms of northwestern Iowa, southwestern Minnesota, and Montana's Big Hole Valley. In beautiful, deceptively simple prose touched with humor and affection, Klinkenborg evokes a way of life at risk, and weaves an unforgettable story of the richness of rural living.

Klinkenborg knows this topic is off the beaten track. No puns, metaphors or euphemisms intended, it is literally a book about the production of hay in the vast fields of Minnesota and Iowa. His fascination perplexes no one more than the author's relatives, who make a living at it and observe his enthusiasm for the work with benign bemusement. Of course in the process of learning the family trade, Klinkenborg learns something about his own heritage, but he presents this as mere incidental observations, like an old friend waved to at the end of a row just before turning the combine around to get back to business. The writing is superb. I'd give it a 10, but he does tend to go a tad overboard with loving descriptions of the machinery.


What To Look For In Quality Horse Hay

When selecting hay for feeding horses there are a a couple of important factors.

* There should be no mold and very little dust. Dusty and moldy hay can cause your horse to have irreparable lung damage.

* The hay should be green in color. Yellow or brown hay means it probably has been rained on and thus have less nutritional content and possible, though not definite, increased for chance of mold.

* The hay should smell good. Meaning it should have dried grass or mowed lawn smell. Moldy hay can be detected by smell.

* Broken leaves mean the hay was a bit too dry when baled and may have a lessened nutritional content.

* Hot hay means hay is too wet and will be moldy.

* Free Of Weeds

A Day In The Hayfields, 1904 - Charming video that shows some unique haying equipment.

Hay Making Videos

The "Tillers" video shows horse-drawn hay making equipment. The other two use antique tractors.

Please feel free to ask any hay making questions here. - Hay Baling Tips Guestbook

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    • WildFacesGallery profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Iowa

      @RoseannMurphy: It would depend on how much rain and the type of buyer. Some folks aren't quite as picky. Dust and mold are to be avoided at all times in regards to feeding horses.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      I am in Northern Illinois (Woodstock area) hay was cut and ready to bale...days of drying etc. When a huge storm came thru this morning and rained on the unbaled hay. What are my choices. Can I still sell to horses

    • blestman lm profile image

      blestman lm 

      5 years ago

      Wow. Great lens. I had no idea about weather pattern you mentioned. It will give ma a new way to use the weather reports. I knew there was something to the moon cycle. Thanks for the great information.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Wonderful lens! Thanks for sharing.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Great lens! I always look out for Sedan or Sudan grass, if it caught a freeze, it can cause anemia in horses.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      One thing that we have to be careful over here is ragwort; unscrupulous farmers sometimes just don't care and the blasted stuff is baled up with the hay. I'm somewhat relieved that my days of buying hay in to see us over the winter are now long gone! Having said that, there is no finer feeling than seeing your horse, fed, dry and warm, settling down at night in a deep straw bed with a pile of sweet hay after spending the day turned out in the cold and wet.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Excellent info!!

    • AdeleW profile image


      7 years ago

      I am in the UK and hay making can be as difficult as our weather can be! It's great when it all goes well, but it can make you cry when you see cut grass just lying there getting rained on!

    • lesliesinclair profile image


      7 years ago

      During early child rearing days we lived in the middle of a ranch, where they raised and sold both cattle and hay, sometimes even some corn, but I think that was because it attracted pheasants and made for some good meals. Watching the swather and smelling the new mown hay was a sentimental pleasure.

    • DANCING COWGIRL profile image

      Dancing Cowgirl Design 

      7 years ago from Texas

      Nice lens! We gave up on bailing our own hay with all the drought in Texas.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      have a 22 acre hay field which is mostly just prairie grass. We've been getting daily rain, but didn't get enough earlier in the spring, and now I'm trying to figure out if I can even bale it at all. Some areas are dense with about 10" of growth; others are more sparse, averaging about 6". My neighbor doesn't think it's worth baling, but at the price of hay these days (all the Colorado hay going to Texas), I'm starting to wonder. Help!

    • CruiseReady profile image


      7 years ago from East Central Florida

      I was talking to my sister in law this morning ... because of the drought in TX, they are paying three times what they were before for a bale of hay for their cows . . .

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Always love seeing hale bales in the fields, interesting information of how they get there!

    • Sylvestermouse profile image

      Cynthia Sylvestermouse 

      8 years ago from United States

      This is really fascinating! I have always just taken hay for granted. Now I have a lot more appreciation for the farmers who bale it.

    • squidoopets profile image

      Darcie French 

      8 years ago from Abbotsford, BC

      Unique lens! Rolled to my Horse games pages, many thanks -:)

    • remanon profile image


      8 years ago

      This is great! We will be cutting our own hay this year - a bit of a challenge given the uk weather!

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 

      8 years ago from Central Florida

      This is very thorough and detailed for anyone wanting to make their own hay.

      I very much enjoyed the remarkable video on haying in 1904.

    • paperfacets profile image

      Sherry Venegas 

      8 years ago from La Verne, CA

      Hay! This may to the first on Squidoo about growing hay. Who would guess that there is a niche on hay. You have found it!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Very interesting! I have lots of horses and a hay field that the local farmer bales for me every year (hopefully twice). Thanks for the education about hay for horses!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Yay! Thanks for the good tips and advice! Blessed by a Squid Angel!

    • hankasawat profile image


      8 years ago

      Who would have thought hey could be so interesting?! But it is. You made it fun for me!

    • RhondaAlbom profile image

      Rhonda Albom 

      8 years ago from New Zealand

      City girl here - I had no idea there was different hay.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      MagicBeanDip, just saw where your wife is a fan of Friesians. Stunning art work!!!! We have breed and raised FPS Friesians horses for 8 years now and breed the baroque body type. We have 11 and so love each and everyone. Wonderful breed!!! I pinch myself daily and remind myself its not a dream but a dream come true!!! Please tell your wife she has excellent taste and for her to come see me some day!!!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      @MagicBeanDip: Thanks, MagicBeanDip?

      I am a hay smeller!!! (okay that was scary)

      Was taught that method 15 years ago at a class at A&M Texas. Every flake here gets smelled before being fed! It is very frustrating when I do everything possible to have good quality hay for my horses and this is now the 5th year that it has either been ruined by lack of rain, rain or but mostly timing of the hay guys. Very frustrating, it cost A LOT to herbicide, fertilize and have cut and I have yet to get a good cutting! Normally have to spend another 2 g's on buying hay from someone else. Everyone tells me I can't bale my own, that used equipement will break and I'll be stuck, well I couldn't have lost any more amount money or production than I already have.

      So if you know where I could pick-up some clean baling equipment at a fair price please let me know! My tractor is small kubota 3430 4x4 so I can't run the large

      equipment and then that's the start of a new problem!

      Oh and by the way, the real "hay guy" who was to cut and bale (that never returned my phone calls for 3 weeks) called last night and said he is now ready to cut :( . He said my hay was cow hay and not to feed to my horses. And the gentleman that did cut, one of the tractors he used for raking, caught fire in my pasture and burned part of my hay and pasture. Was very scary!!! Don't say this might not be my calling....I say it is, It's just not the guys i've used calling, :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      @molittle: molittle -

      I don't have any advice for you about the current situation, since I've only heard one side of the story. But I might be able to help you avoid similar situations in the future.

      Go out and check the quality of the hay before it is baled. You can see the mold in the windrow, or the leaves might be matted together and soft, like baby spinach that's starting to go bad in the fridge.

      It's possible for hay to get a little rain and not turn moldy. Best way to tell is to inspect the windrow before it's baled. Also, know what good hay smells like, and smell will help you judge the quality of the hay in question.

      Grass hay can stand quite a bit of rain and still be OK for horses, if it is handled correctly. If it gets rained on after it's raked into windrows, it will tend to mold. If it's left flat on the ground where it was cut, it will tend to simply dry out and turn brown, without molding. After rain, wait until it is dry and don't rake it until the day it is ready to bale. It'll have less feed value because of the rain, but can still be suitable for horses. Again, best way to judge is to smell it and inspect the windrows before baling. I've done this with ditch grass, but not sure how well it works with pasture grasses.

      As far as working with custom balers, remember that you are most likely not their only customer. They probably have several other fields of hay to cut and/or bale during the same dry spell.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      The hay man was ready to cut and bale my 60 acre hay pasture but there was a chance of rain so I asked him to wait a few days that for sure would rain if he started but he could cut the back 10 for himself for his cows if he chose to do so. Well while coming home sure enough it started raining & was glad that I had told him to wait, well he HAD cut my pasture and it rain for about 3 hours the next day come evening rained 2hrs the next day rained hard 2 hrs. I worried this hay might make may horses sick! I told him that I don't want to take the chance and feed to our horses that he could just have it all and he insist its good hay and wants me to pay him for it....What is the right thing for me to do?

    • AppalachianCoun profile image


      9 years ago

      Great lens and great tips. Thank-you.

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      [in reply to sittonbull]

      If the cost of fertilizer is making things difficult for you, I suggest you take a look at biodynamic agriculture. It helps make the fertilizer you do apply more effective.

      Wikipedia on Biodynamics, What is Biodynamics

    • sittonbull profile image


      10 years ago

      Hard for us to grow Alfalfa here, but coastal bermuda has worked well for me. Try to cut as close as possible to every 30 days in season for quality and have averaged five cutting per year. With fertilizer at historic highs last year and historic drought ... even tho hay prices rose substantially... made it tough! Good luck this year! Stars and faved.

    • delia-delia profile image


      10 years ago

      we grew our own hay in Missouri for our horses, and I lost was hard, cause of the weather the temp for cutting and baling.. I give you credit for doing it..5*


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