Whether you are strictly a grass-fed operation or you feed grain, part of your animal's diet consists of grass and hay.
Pastures provide the supply of grass through the summer months and grass growing season, but fresh grass is not an option throughout the winter months. Hay is used during the winter months to provide full or partial nutrition to your animals.
We spend much of our summer managing our rotational grazing system as well as baling hay to store for the winter months.
Each farm and situation is unique, but one important item to consider is whether it makes sense for you to bale your own hay or if is better to buy your hay supply.
There are many factors that go into this decision and what is right for you might not be what is right for the farm down the road.
Do you have the land for hay fields?
Many small farms just do not have the acreage available to plant a hay field. Others may need the pasture to graze their animals through the summer months and do not have the extra space to stockpile grass supplies in order to make hay.
Another option is to lease hay acreage from someone else. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration when leasing hay ground, but this can be a very good option for some.
Do you have the equipment?
Equipment can be expensive to buy and maintain. Are you baling enough hay to make the cost of the equipment worthwhile?
The only reason we started baling our own hay over 20 years ago is because we got a baler for free. Granted...it was headed for the junk yard, but a friend was able to make some adjustments and we used that old rusty baler for probably 10 more years.
We have invested a considerable amount of money since then in newer and additional equipment. And be sure to figure in that not all tractors can run all equipment. Sometimes the newer and bigger piece of hay equipment also means that you have to upgrade the tractor too.
Which is probably why they want to upgrade in the first place...
Do you have the resources?
By resources, I am mostly talking about people. While round bales take much less man power than square bales (if you are doing it the old fashioned way on the back of a hay wagon), you still have to have enough people and tractors to get the baling done and bales moved to storage.
Hay is one of those things that is very time sensitive. Rain is always coming and you have to get it done before the rain comes. Taking it slow because you don't have enough man power isn't always an option.
And don't forget that baling hay is a very grueling task. From driving a tractor in the sun and heat all day (unless you have an air conditioned cab) to handling heavy square bales on the back of a wagon or stacking in the hay mow, it is hot and exhausting work. We used to have extra help from Papa and other older family members, but at some point they have all had to bow out because the physical requirements are just more than they can handle.
Do you have the storage?
Whether you buy or bale your own hay, you will need someplace to keep the hay dry. Wet hay molds and loses nutritional value and could make your animals sick. While cattle's digestive systems do have a higher tolerance for subpar quality hay, horses cannot tolerate moldy or wet hay.
We use a combination of storing round bales in the barn and placing plastic bale sleeves on those that need to be stored outside.
If you do not have adequate barn storage, your only option may be to buy hay and have it delivered as needed.
Do you have the time?
Good hay weather never comes when you have time. The first perfect hay weather week last year happened to be the week Isaac graduated. With a big party to get ready for, there was no way we could bale hay in the morning and then entertain guests in the evening.
Graduation trumped hay!
Working full-time jobs off the farm may not enable you the flexibility to take time off to bale when the hay is ready. There isn't a perfect recipe of cutting hay one day and then baling it 3 days later. With good sunshine, wind and heat, sometimes the hay is ready in 1 to 2 days. Other times, it may take a whole week to dry with overcast skies, ground still wet from Spring rains, and a really thick stand of grass. It rarely runs like clock work and can be a challenge to schedule time off work.
Daniel and Isaac are fortunate to have jobs that most of the time allows them the flexibility to leave early or take off at the last minute. I do not have that flexibility.
Buying hay each year can be a very costly endeavor.
Hay prices tend to be very volatile. If the weather is nice and there is an abundance of hay supplies, prices will be lower. Years where there is drought, or more commonly in Ohio, continuous rain, quality hay supplies may me in short supply causing hay prices to go up. Buying hay right out of the field can yield savings over buying in the dead of winter, but you have to have the facilities to store the hay.
However, buying and maintaining hay equipment is very costly as well. Once you own the equipment, your it may be cheaper to make your own hay and it enables you to make additional hay to sell to cover the cost of the equipment.
Another disadvantage to buying hay is that you are never sure of the conditions that they hay was baled in. Did the hay get rained on before it was baled? Did it sit out in the sun too long and get baked? Sometimes it can be hard to tell the quality of the hay when it is all wrapped up.
When you bale your own hay, you are in control of the quality...as much as mother nature will allow.
There is also another hybrid option available.
If you own the land, you can grown your own hay and then hire someone to custom bale the hay for you. Contractors generally charge a fee per bale. You can customize even further by doing part of the work yourself and then hiring out other parts. For instance, if you have a tractor and a baler, but not a mower (haybine, discbine, sycle mower, etc.) or rake, you can hire someone to cut and rake the hay and then you bale it yourself.
This method also allows you to have some control over the timing and quality of the hay. You are able to watch the weather and then cut hay when you think there is a good window of opportunity. However, it can sometimes be a challenge to find a contractor when they are also busy making their own hay.
Hay is an essential part of your animal's diet. It is not something that should be a last minute thought, but should be thoroughly planned and researched.
Take the time to research, discuss and plan what is best for your farm. It may be an easy option for you, but when you do the research, you may find that it isn't such a cut and dry issue.
Just know that being prepared is always the best option. Waiting until the middle of winter with only a few bales left, is never the best time to try to find hay. Auctions can be a good source of hay, but again, you are at the mercy of peak prices. If possible, it is best to find hay early and develop a relationship with the farmer who is supplying your hay. Maybe even check on the field as it is in process to make sure the quality meets your standards.
There are all types and qualities of hay out there. Be sure to do your homework and feed your animals the best.
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Hello! I am Heather... the city girl turned mom to manure loving country boys. My husband and I both grew up in the city, but spent weekends visiting grandparents in the country. We are first generation farmers who learn best by almost always doing things the hard way. I hope you enjoy following along with our adventures down on the farm.