Making Good Quality Hay for Horses
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.
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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 weather.gov 7 Day Forecast and Hourly Weather Graph.
The two prediction methods I use are:
- 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%.
- 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.
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
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.
More Sources For Hay Making Information
- Article on Hay Making Equipment
Learn about making your own hay. If you have access to a patch of hay land, the equipment and you'd like to produce the best possible forage for you pets and livestock, do-it-yourself haymaking can still spell dollars and sense.