Friday, July 10, 2009

Hay there!

I would venture to guess that a large majority of American horse owners are pretty divorced from the production of their horses' food supply. Some may be as involved as going to the feed store for grain, and maybe stacking hay in their barn, if their horses are at home. Those who board may never have any involvement with the stable hand who feeds, let alone the farmer.

I am much closer to the source of my equines' forage. I am responsible for maintaining the thirteen acres of pasture they graze in the late spring, summer, and early fall.And I am blessed with involvement is harvesting the hay my herd consumes in the winter. I drive a tractor and baler for three weeks or so each summer, for my neighbor Henry, in exchange for my winter's hay for however many beasts I'm housing. It's very nice that I have none of the cost of maintaining machinery, nor do I have any of the risk involved with farming. But I know exactly what they are eating--Henry raises export quality timothy hay--I get some of the slightly lesser quality bales from around the edges of the fields, where other types of grass (or occasionally weeds) may have crept in from neighboring fields; or the bales from the outside edges of the hay sheds, whose surfaces may have discolored some in the sun. (I don't ever have to worry about getting spoiled bales--Henry makes sure those go for his beef cattle, who have considerably more tolerant digestive systems than horses.)I'm absolutely sure I get the better end of the deal. Though it ties up the beginnings of my summer, I make sure that when he needs me, I'm available. (Grass hay is baled in the afternoons, so I work on my place and with the horses in the mornings.)
Henry and his foreman have a crew of teenagers and twenty-somethings, including their own sons (and now a daughter) and a couple more. And one old lady. They give me the best John Deere, with what is essentially an automatic transmission, air conditioning, and a radio! It's hooked up to a hydraulically run baler, which seems to be more dependable than the balers that run on their own power, and are only pulled by the tractors.
Henry owns or leases just under 1000 acres--that's all he's allowed to have irrigation rights to. The fields range from 30 acres or so up to maybe 75 acres. A friend whose husband farms only about 400 acres cuts all his in one shot, then bales like crazy to get it in the barn. Henry, on the other hand, doesn't want to risk the whole lot being on the ground if the weather betrays us, so he cuts in a rotation--there's only maybe three or four fields on the ground at any one time. As the baling crew gets one baled, Henry's brother-in-law is cutting one next in the sequence, to be ready for us in four to five days, depending on the temperature and wind.
Either the day before, or during the morning hours, if it's hot enough, two or three "tedders" will "fluff" the rows of hay left by the swather earlier in the week. By early afternoon, if conditions are right, the hay will have dried to less than 10% moisture content, and we can start driving up and down the long rows with the balers. There are usually three to five balers going, depending on the size of the field (too many in a small field and we get in each others way). Each row in a good field will produce 25 to 40 bales, at about 120 pounds each (exporters like them heavy! to get more per shipping container) or 1 1/2 to 3 tons of hay. A row generally takes about 15-20 minutes to bale, barring broken twine or other delay.
Coming along behind us are the harrowbeds (don't ask me how they got their name--they have nothing to doing with harrowing--I prefer to call them bale-wagons). Each harrowbed picks up between four and five tons, depending on if they're programed (yes, computer) for the main stack or the "toppers."
One of Hank's twins backs a load into the barn.
Kevin brings in a "topper" with a specialized fork-lift called a "squeeze"....
...and sets it on top of the main stack.
By dark the barn will be full of hay bound primarily for Japan, though sometimes some will go to California, or to other locations. One year, some of Hank's hay fed the horses of the Queen of England!
A day's job, well done.
Back at it again, tomorrow.


  1. That looks like a good deal for all involved. I'm amazed at the idea of hay being exported to places like Japan and England!

  2. What an interesting post! It amazes me how technological advances have altered the face of farming - I can only imagine how farmers managed all this in the days pre-hydraulics, pre-computer, pre-automated anything.
    As for air conditioned tractors - only in their dreams! (But I bet those wide-open fields feel twice as hot when you have to leave the tractor to fix the baler!)

  3. That is a totally awesome story. Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. It's almost time for me to make my annual journey to your area to buy hay for the winter, because I DO like to be involved with my hay, to the point of meeting the folks who grow it and buying it as close to out-of-the-field as I can manage!

    Do you have any farmers to recommend? I usually just check the little nickel once I arrive in Ellensburg, but would happily take a local expert's opinion instead! you can email me privately :
    aarenex (at) haikufarm (dot) net

  5. WOW! This post was totally fascinating! We try to buy local as much as possible, but hay isn't always easy to find locally grown here in New Mexico, so we do end up buying ours from places like Colorado.
    I don't think I truly understood all the work that goes into harvesting such a huge amount of hay, though. How lucky you are to be able to be so hands-on with the hay you feed your horses...and a great way to save some money in the process (though you make up for it in time and hard work, right> lol!) Of course, with an A/C and radio you're not suffering too bad. hehe!

    Very cool. Thanks for sharing.