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How Hay Is Made
Hay is a livestock feed that consists of dried plants, especially grasses. Hay is fed mainly to cattle and horses, and it is used mostly in winter when fresh grass is not available. A dairy cow may consume 20 to 30 pounds (9-14 kg) of hay daily during the winter months. Among the grasses most widely used to make hay are timothy, redtop, orchard, and bromegrass. Other plants commonly raised for hay include alfalfa, clover, and oats. The food value of hay varies according to the kind of plant. However, all hay is rich in carbohydrates, and hay made of clover, alfalfa, and other legumes also contains relatively large amounts of protein.
The first step in haymaking is mowing. The timing of this step is very important. If the plants are cut too early, they contain large amounts of sap and are difficult to dry. If cut too late, the plants are woody and have a relatively low food value.
After the plants have been mowed, they are usually raked by machines into loose piles, called windrows. The piles catch the wind so that the plants dry quickly. Hay may also be tedded. Tedding consists of stirring the windrows evenly on the ground so that the plants dry more readily.
In the Gulf States and other rainy areas, drying hay in the field is impractical, because hay loses much of its food value if it does not dry out quickly. In some regions the cut hay is taken directly to special machines that chop it up, dry it with artificial heat, and make it into pellets or blow it into sacks. This method is faster and produces better hay than field drying. However, it is more expensive.
To save storage space and to make shipping more convenient, hay is sometimes bound into bales. A single bale usually contains 75 to 150 pounds (34-68 kg) of hay.
On most farms, hay is stored in a loft above the ground floor of the barn. Some lofts are equipped with special air blowers or heaters to dry the hay. If hay is not thoroughly dry, bacteria in the air may cause it to ferment. This reaction damages the hay.