Regionally, haymaking season is in full swing and, according to agricultural experts, harvesting hay is a hard-earned art.
Paul Cerosaletti, a nutrient and precision feed educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Delaware County, said there’s truth to the adage “make hay while the sun shines.”
“We use (that saying) to describe anything where you’ve got an opportunity to capitalize on, and we’ve had a great run of weather in this part of New York state that’s allowed farmers to get out there days in a row,” he said. “That makes it easier to make hay, especially dry hay, where they have to dry it down to a moisture level of 15% or lower in order to preserve it … and there’s a real demand for dry hay.”
“(Haymaking) is the process of trying to remove the water out of the plant,” Rick Holdridge, of Humdinger Holsteins in Bloomville, said. “Grass, when it’s growing, is about 80% water and only 10 to 20% dry matter. Haying is getting most of the moisture out of that.”
Haymaking, Cerosaletti said, serves several functions. “Haymaking, or haying, is essentially harvesting … a perennial forage crop — grasses or legumes — for the purpose of feeding livestock or horses,” he said. “Around here, a perennial forage that would constitute a hay crop is usually a mix of grasses and legumes, usually clover and alfalfa.
“Livestock is the primary reason, but there are a couple of other uses,” Cerosaletti continued. “One is related to livestock and that’s to make bedding … and that can be harvested as a very mature hay crop with not a lot of nutritional value but lots of biomass. The other purpose would be for mulch, so landscapers or state DOT when they do road projects or contractors when doing a house and seeding a lawn, they would want hay, and that can be low-quality, to put on the surface of the bare soil to help retain moisture and get the grass seeded.”
Experts said when hay is cut determines its use.
“In this part of New York state, we’re taking two to four cuttings per year, and it depends on your need for forage and how productive your forage stand is and your labor force,” Cerosaletti said. “The more harvest you take, the more frequently you’re making hay, and it may be too intense for your labor force, but that also may depend on what market you’re targeting. If you’re making mulch hay, it doesn’t need to be nutrient dense, just lots of fiber, so that’s maybe two times a year. If it’s premium quality forage for animals that are growing or producing a lot of milk, you’re going to want more nutrient dense, so you harvest at a younger state of maturity.”
“We start haying in May because you want a higher quality, because the animals need to digest it to make milk,” Holdridge said. “For cow feed, you want earlier hay, cut in May or June, but horses can deal more with (hay cut in) July, when the plant is more mature and there’s less protein and, for horses, less sugar. For cow-quality material, you’ll cut every 30 to 40 days, so potentially four cuttings of hay every year. We sell about 20,000 bales for horses. We make small square bales, and a lot of bigger farms … make large bales and they weigh around 800 pounds and are handled with machinery and loaders. Small square bales are more cumbersome and harder to handle, but there’s … about a third more value in a small square bale.” A small square bale, Holdridge said, weighs about 40 pounds and is 14-by-16-by-35 inches.
The haymaking season, experts said, usually continues through October. Weather, sources said, is one of the biggest factors in haymaking.
“The hardest part, No. 1, is the weather and having enough good days in a row to get it harvested,” Cerosaletti said. “That’s from year to year, the big challenge. There’s the corollary of having to make hay when the sun shines and realizing that, especially for livestock, the entire profitability for the rest of the year hinges on what happens right now with the hay harvest. (Farmers) have to move so fast and there is a lot of activity that happens at once. When we have a long line of cars behind a hay wagon … or they’re out there at 5 in the morning and again at 9 o’clock at night … realize these things are not an inconvenience; it’s part of what’s at stake for the farmers.”
“The biggest thing is the weather, that’s what you’re playing,” Holdridge echoed. “It seems like the best weather is on the weekends, so you don’t get weekends off. This time of year, you’ll need three days to make hay, so you’re mowing it today and hoping that forecast in the afternoon three days from now is correct. (The first weekend of June) we hit a four-day stretch where the forecast held, so then it’s how fast you can make it. You wanted to make as much as you possibly could, and that’s the hard part: your windows are kind of narrow. Last year, it rained every other day, and you were shooting for windows that were an hour or two long.
“You mow the hay and, around here, you have to ted it,” he continued. “The hay is moved or stirred around and a different side of it is put up to the sun or breeze, so you’ll ted it three or four or six times to get it as dry as you can, and you may only have an hour to get it baled before the dew sets in at night. It’s an art and the stress level is really high.”
“It’s all weather-related and quality based,” Dennis Deysenroth, of Byebrook Farm in Bloomville, said. “We typically cut the hayfields three to four times in the summer and … the better quality the hay is, the healthier the animals will be, and they’ll eat more and be more productive because of it.”
Sources said haymaking methods vary, with advancements in the field.
“The other end point is to make a fermented hay, which we call silage, which is essentially the same as when we make sauerkraut, where it makes a lactic acid which preserves through fermentation,” Cerosaletti said. “So, instead of drying down the forage, it’s put in an airtight environment, whether that’s a silo or the airtight bales that look like marshmallows, and the bacteria breaks down the sugars and preserves the silage. That will preserve for years, as long as it’s not exposed to the air.
“The advantage to that is that you can make it quicker, and you don’t have to have so many good days in a row,” he continued. “Around here, we’ve got farmers doing both — dry hay and silage — and farmers are largely doing the silage because it’s easier to get a high-quality crop in a shorter weather window. This time of year can be really dicey, and it really sets the stage for how the animals will produce … so there’s a real push.”
“It’s a little difficult to get the hay dry, because it all depends on the weather, and with dry hay, we cut it and the mowing machine has rollers in it that crimp the hay to help squeeze the moisture out … and get it dried down to about 15% moisture,” Deysenroth said. “Then we ted it, using a tedder, which is little spinners with pitchfork-y things that spread the hay nice and even across the field so, between the breeze and sunshine, it dries the hay. Once it’s dry enough … to bale, then we use a rake and make it into a windrow where we take all the hay, spread out evenly on field, and put it into long rows of loose hay.
“We have a dairy farm, so we feed the hay to the cows,” he continued, noting that he and his family produce about 15,000 small square bales annually and 300 round bales. “With anything you put up for the cows to eat, it’s got to be able to be stored without going bad, so if you put it up wet, it needs to be wrapped up in the white, round bales or put in a silo that you can seal the air out of, that way it goes through a fermentation process so that it keeps and cows have a good quality product to eat during the winter. A lot of dairy farms feed mainly silage. That’s sort of the preferred method among livestock producers, because you can capture high-quality forage with less days of good weather.”
“They make mow dryers that dry the hay inside the barn,” Holdridge said. “Or, the new way is to spray it with a compound acid to retard mold growth. Those are the new things; the mow dryer has been around for a while, but the acid is new within the last 15 years, so there’s automation coming all the time.”
Sources said current market conditions are presenting added challenges.
“The issue this year is the price of fuel,” Cerosaletti said. “You’re going across the field multiple times to make the hay and not only is the fuel more expensive, but something the non-farming public might not realize is that fertilizer is a good 50% more expensive. We’ve been kind of dry and had good weather (this season), but what I’m hearing from farmers is that their yields from the first cutting are lower. So, inputs are higher, and they just harvested less crop. For each ton of that forage, it’s more expensive to make.”
“I think this year is a little more treacherous than most, because the fuel prices are so high and it’s going to make people rethink it,” Holdridge said. “Usually, to get a second or third cutting, you’ve got to put on fertilizer and that basically costs $50 an acre right now. I think farmers this year are not going to make hay; it’s too much of a gamble. There’s a lot into the field before you ever mow it. On the other hand, the hay prices seem to keep rising and rising, just like everything else, so you can maybe make some money. This year, you’re scrutinizing every move you make, and the pressure seems to be more than ever.”
Pandemic-related supply chain issues, Cerosaletti said, are also problematic.
“Getting the equipment to do haying and maintaining it has become much more expensive,” he said. “Supply chain disruptions have been real and very significant in the farm equipment industry. Getting new parts is a waiting game and … just like in the car industry, where you can’t get a new car, that’s very much true for used farm and new farm equipment. Farmers are waiting months for it to show up, and prices are super high.”
Changing upstate demographics, sources said, have also affected hay production.
“There’s farms that go out of business, on the dairy end of it, but then transition into feeding beef cows or making hay to sell for horses,” Holdridge said. “There’s quite a bit of demand for hay to go to Long Island or Boston, where there’s horses but they can’t grow the hay.”
“There are a lot less dairy farms and people that have sold their cows, but are still making hay during the summer because they have all that land and there’s always a market for hay,” Deysenroth said. “They can truck it down to Long Island and places like that for horses. It’s typically a supplementation. It’s not like growing a cash crop like corn or soybeans, but it is a pretty good business to be in if you can be in it, but you’ve got to have the land and machinery and it’s a lot of labor.”
“It’s a significant investment to get into it, so it’s mostly folks that already have the equipment because they’re dairy or beef farmers,” Cerosaletti said. “The other thing we’ve seen is tremendous growth, in Delaware and Otsego (counties), in the beef cattle industry as farms have transitioned out of dairy … and those folks need hay to feed cattle. What I see more often is farmers using hay sales as a diversification of a livestock enterprise. The hay markets are less volatile in price than dairy and the milk market. There seems to be a steady demand for hay for horses or folks that have animals, so … if farmers are producing hay for sale, they can make it year to year at a relatively stable price. And, unlike milk, there’s no federal (control) driving that; it’s basically handshake transactions between farmers and the consumer.”
Cerosaletti said the impacts of haymaking go beyond the farm.
“It’s not something you and I can eat, but we have animals that can eat it and turn it into something of value to the human food chain,” he said. “I call our farmers our first order economic engines, because they are taking resources that are basic — the soil, the sunlight, the moisture that falls on the soil — and turning it into economic activity. That is why farming matters to a local community; it generates economic activity that reverberates.
“And there are societal benefits,” Cerosaletti continued. “We love the open space and these beautiful green meadows. The edges of those fields are incredible points of habitat … and those edges exist because the farmer cuts the hay.”
Despite the challenges, Deysenroth said, the work is worth it.
“It is fun when things go right,” he said, noting that he’s been haying since the 1970s. “You can have a good time and you do enjoy it. It gives you a different sense of satisfaction that you don’t get from a lot of things. You enjoy the nature and the weather; there are upsides, and you’ve got to remember that. There’s no place better than a hayfield on a sunny day.”