Across the street where I grew up was a softball field complex. One of my father’s many side jobs was to care for these fields. This of course translated into our entire family spending many hours working on these fields as well. Lawn mowing became my specialty. Sitting upon the cushy seat of the riding lawn mower with my walkman (the ipod of my youth) clipped to my belt, I sang and circled.
Until I married my husband, I always thought it was the same process for cutting hay—except the equipment was bigger, louder, and dustier. I was wrong. Harvesting hay requires scientific understanding of moisture in the air, and luck the weather will hold out.
The most important part of a plant used for hay—and no alfalfa is not the only type—is the leaves. It’s where the nutrients are found. When baling, you want the leaves to stay attached to their stems as much as possible. If the cut-hay is too dry, the crispy leaves will break off during the baling process. But baling right after a crop is down won’t work either. If the plant holds too much moisture, the inside of a bale will grow moldy. Feeding moldy bales to animals can make them sick or even kill them. So how do farmers do it?
After being cut, the hay is left on the ground in windrows (lines or rows of cut-hay) to dry. Then sometimes, when it’s too wet, the hay is raked over to allow those plants on the bottom to dry. When this happens, farmers usually rake windrows together to save time on baling. But the final secret to keeping the leaves intact is baling with a touch of dew on your crop. That is why most baling happens in the early, and I mean early, morning.
The actual time it takes depends on the weather. If it’s windy the hay will dry out quickly, sometimes too quickly, and most of the nutrition can be lost. Rain isn’t much better. A light sprinkle won’t hurt anything—just make for a longer drying time. But a down pour will ruin a cut-crop. Yes, farmers typically get three to four crops a year, depending on where you live, but every bale lost is one less they’ll have through the harsh winter months. Now you know why a farmer prays for rain until his crop is down.