What the hay?

After running out of hay this spring, we ended up buying one bale at a time from local feed stores. That meant we paid ‘retail’ price and had to take whatever they had left, which Stella didn’t find too tasty. With all the extreme weather ruining crops and land being put into corn (thanks to the ethanol boom) even the feed stores had a hard time keeping decent fodder in stock. So even though we had gotten 30 bales of hay in not too long ago, we figured it was a good idea to ‘be prepared’. We called Farmer Ben to see what he had left. Here’s the hayfield. It’s a mix of mostly orchard grass, a common hay species in the PNW, and some alfalfa, which isn’t so common here. Alfalfa is a legume (in the protein-providing pea family) which grows best in the hot summers of Eastern WA.
Bet you didn’t know Subaru made a hay wagon! These bales were fairly small, so 4 fit inside and we put one on top. Farmer Ben and his crew got a laugh at our ‘operation’, but it was fun driving around the field like real farmers.
Not so long ago, I didn’t really know much about hay, just that hay was livestock food and straw was for bedding. But when you go to the feed store, or call up a hay farmer to buy hay, you need to have a little more knowledge about the various kinds and qualities of hay. At least if you don’t want to sound like a total greenhorn.
Hay is the generic term for a certain group of forage plants that are cut and dried for long term storage. In the PNW you most commonly find orchardgrass as the barebones cheaper local hay. Sometimes you get timothy grass, as that was often recommended by the state agriculture department as a good forage/hay crop to plant with red clover (more on using USDA publications for research in a future post). Our own bitty pasture still has clover and timothy from its previous life as the home field for the bigger ‘stead. Last summer we cut loose hay with a scythe and put it up the old fashioned way.
Then you have grass/alfalfa mix. As we learned recently, it’s available locally, but more often trucked over from east of the mountains. Alfalfa has a higher protein content than grass which is necessary in winter months when there isn’t much growing. It’s also “stemmier” depending on which cutting you get. The roughage helps keep a cow’s digestive system functioning properly and generates more internal heat. A grass/legume mix is good because too much legume can cause problems like bloat in cattle and be too nutrient-dense for some horses. This spring we ran out of good hay and were left with very poor quality grass hay from last summer. We ended up buying straight alfalfa bales from the feed store to custom mix so Stella would get enough protein. (Grain as a supplement feed/treat is also a source of protein and helps get the critter used to dealing with humans.)
And lastly, straight alfalfa. We don’t buy much of it, but it’s nice to have a few bales around for really cold weather.
Once you learn more about what species go into your local hay, then it’s time to learn about “cuttings“. Most hay-producing areas can grow and harvest more than one crop each season. So the earliest batch of grass will hopefully be ready to cut when there is enough dry/warm weather to keep it from being ruined by rain. It can be kind of iffy here in Whatcom county, which is why so many people are using baleage, where the grass is made into giant round bales, covered with plastic and allowed to ferment, kind of like sauerkraut for cows. The tall silos you see on older farms were used for making silage. The fodder is compressed in the silo and ferments there. This way the grass can be harvested and stored quickly in bad weather.
Second cutting hay is generally bulkier, as it has had the benefit of warmer, drier weather, and sometimes irrigation. There may be a bit less nutrients though. This is good cow hay – roughage plus nutrition.
And in a good season a third cutting is harvested. There is usually a lot less of it, maybe 25% of what you get in a first or second cutting, but it is very nutrient-dense in comparison since the plants are tired of being cut down and working hard to complete their lifecycle (i.e. flower and go to seed) before winter, just like lawn grass. This makes good horse hay, and a nice cow hay if you want to boost the nutrition a bit.
It’s really fun to have all these options for custom blending Stella’s food. And learning about hay is the first step to knowing where much of our own food comes from. Hay is more than scratchy, allergy-aggravating dried grass; it’s a magical transformation of sunlight (via chlorophyll) into meat, milk and manure.
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