What a stretch of good weather we have had. And the forecast looks like more to come at the moment.
It's great weather for making hay! Unfortunately, our haymaking plans had to be put on hold for a few days last week when the hydro motor went out on our mower-conditioner. Don’t ask me the details, but some seal went bad and then some sort of liquid began leaking and then the motor went out. That’s my non-technical description of the problem.
Anyway, the parts finally came in, and the repairman and my husband, Robb, got it put back together Thursday. Although it was already 4 p.m., Robb headed out immediately to mow 20 acres of hay. We need to take advantage of the good weather.
Haymaking is one of the most frustrating jobs, I think. It’s even more dependent on the weather than any other crop we produce. It requires exactly the right weather at just the right times for good hay to be made. There are problems if all the stars do not align: The hay gets rained on or you have to bale it early when it’s not quite dry (which can lead to mold), or it grows too tall and old because you can’t get into the field to mow it. Most of the time around here, it takes at least two days and sometimes three to get hay to dry completely so you can rake and bale it. Sometimes it’s so hot that it takes less time, but we like to have that window of good weather just in case.
So, we need three days of sunshine and hot weather, preferably without humidity, and preferably with a nice breeze to make the hay dry even faster. That’s the ideal haymaking weather. As you can imagine, this can be hard to come by in Iowa. There’s often a change in the forecast, a pop-up thunderstorm, high humidity or something. It can be frustrating. Robb is often not friends with the weather forecasters at this time of year because he gets upset when the forecast changes and he has already mowed hay. (Sorry, weather guys!)
We grow a grass-alfalfa mix for hay, which is good for all types of animals. Pure alfalfa is too rich for horses and can cause colic. Grass hay produces much less tonnage, and therefore less hay, each year, so is not cost-effective. We like the mix because it gives the protein and energy from the alfalfa, with some grass to temper the alfalfa.
We mow the hay when 5 percent of the alfalfa plants are flowering. Yes, alfalfa plants flower. Think of it like clover. It’s in the same family of plants. After mowing, the alfalfa and the grass begin growing back, just like your lawn, and when it’s ready again, we make our next cutting of hay.
We use a self-propelled mower-conditioner, which means it drives itself. Some mower-conditioners are pulled behind tractors and powered by the hydraulics or PTO (power take-off) of the tractor. The mower has a huge cutter bar, kind of like a hedge trimmer, that moves many small knives back and forth, cutting the hay as we drive across the field. There also are mowers with rotary blades that cut more like your lawnmower does.
After it’s cut, the alfalfa travels through the machine, where it’s “conditioned.” Big rollers flatten it and squeeze out as much moisture as possible, especially from the stems, which are the thickest part of the plant. The conditioning also makes the hay a little more digestible to the animal that eats it. After the conditioning, the alfalfa falls to the ground, where it starts to dry and cure in the sun.
Stay tuned. Next time I’ll explain the baling part of haymaking, including the all-important decision of when it’s ready to bale. That in itself is a science and an art. Meanwhile, have a good rest of July!
Jennifer Ewoldt, DVM, and her husband, Robb, are farmers in the Quad-Cities. Her column about life on the farm is published every other Monday.