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Growing Hay

Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you are a thousand miles from the corn field. --Dwight D Eisenhower (34th US President, 1890-1969)

hay (noun) 1. Wild or cultivated plants, chiefly grasses and legumes, mown and dried for livestock fodder. 2. A trifling amount of money. (Houghton Mifflin dictionary)

The “hay” we want to discuss in this essay is definition 1 above. Contrary to Houghton Mifflin, you are probably aware that the “hay” we are interested in is not a trifling amount of money. The topic of growing hay, in general, is much too large in scope for us to cover here. A Yahoo! search on growing hay turned up 4,4200,000 items. The big question for many of us is whether to buy hay or bale our own. Here we try to help answer that question. To that end, we've included some estimated costs to get started.

“July 2 Cutting” watercolor of Oliver 550 and New Holland 561 haybine used with permission of the artist James Mann,


In the following opinions, we assume you have a flock of always hungry sheep and a need for a modest amount of hay, say under 50 tons per year, or about 1500 bales. When a “bale” is mentioned, a small square bale weighing about 60 lbs is meant. There are other sizes of bales but this traditional size is most convenient for small farms. And finally, we assume you have some land available for the crop – more on that later.

Everyone wants high quality hay, but what is high quality? What looks good or has the best appearance may not be the best nutritionally. If selling hay, appearances are more important and weeds in the hay become a larger concern. If feeding your own hay to your own flock, a few weeds or a little bit of mold or “dust” does not matter.

In general to grow your own hay, you will need tools to prepare the soil and plant, haying tools, and the physical strength and stamina to do this dusty, sweaty job on the hottest days of the summer. Of course, you will need suitable land. Ground that is too wet or has low spots tend to cause winter-kill, especially with alfalfa.

What to Grow

There are many choices among the grasses and legumes used for haying. Alfalfa is the legume of choice in our area. Although alfalfa is widely grown, it thrives in the cooler climate that we have and is longer lived than clover.

Among the grasses, timothy, sometimes called “horse hay” is a common choice since conventional wisdom is that timothy makes a high quality hay. Timothy requires more moisture (rain) than most grasses and is winter hardy. However, our experience is that timothy does not regrow very quickly after the first hay cutting. Total yield (bales per acre) may be less than with other grasses.

Orchard grass is one of the most often used perennial grasses for haying. And, it is the grass we use, blended with alfalfa. Another widely used grass is tall fescue. Consult with your local county cooperative extension service for help with narrowing down the choices to those performing best for your climate.

It seems there is a mutual benefit to growing alfalfa and grass together. Alfalfa, being a legume, captures nitrogen in the air and fixes it in the soil. Grasses need and use the nitrogen in the soil for green growth. The grass protects the soil from erosion and protects the alfalfa from harsh winter injury.

There is evidence of high estrogen red clover causing delayed ovulation in ewes. However, there are new, low estrogen varieties of clover available that may eliminate that effect on ewe reproduction.

Also, there is anecdotal evidence of alfalfa (or legume hay in general) contributing to urinary calculii, or stones in rams. We have not experienced this problem in our brief shepherding career. But if it is a concern, you may opt to plant part of your future hay field into grass alone.


Choose a site for your future hay field that was fallow the previous season, or at least not planted with alfalfa. As with other crops, the better the soil – the better the yield. Having said that, there is also merit in using marginal, less than ideal, land for hay. Alfalfa-grass blends may improve the soil quality over time. While wet spots and sandy or gravely soil will reduce yields, you still may get a better return in hay on those fields than with other crops.

Typically, alfalfa-grass hay fields will be productive for about seven years. Over time, alfalfa dies out. Grass tends to be more aggressive and takes over. Also, undesirable weeds may become established. Consequently, your hay field will last several years, but not forever and the tillage/planting step is relatively infrequent. If hay is your only crop, you may not need to invest in the tillage equipment necessary to prepare the soil. Check with neighbors. You may find some willing to prepare your field for hire.

It is best to plant your hay crop as early in the season as possible. If you get it planted in the early spring, with favorable weather, you can harvest a partial hay crop the same year. However, that first cutting probably will contain more weeds than usual. If spring planting is not possible, late summer is your next possible time.

Most likely, your soil will need amending, fertilizer. Ideally, you should have a soil test. Your county extension service or fertilizer vendor will make recommendations on quantities of fertilizer and trace minerals needed. Generally, alfalfa does not need nitrogen applied, but does use phosphorous, potassium, and boron. Soil pH is important for alfalfa too. Experts recommend a soil pH of 6.5 or higher.

If organic hay is your goal, you may want to spread manure on the field prior to tilling. The manure should be composted (1 year old) to kill weed seeds. How much do you need? The short answer is: as much as you can get. The long answer involves getting a soil test and calculating the N-P-K required based on the type of manure available. One agriculture extension office recommends 4.5 tons of poultry litter per acre. A soil test will also indicate if agricultural lime is needed to raise your soil's pH.

Planting seed can be accomplished in a couple of ways. If spreading synthetic fertilizer, an easy way to plant seed is to have it mixed in with the fertilizer. For best coverage, reduce the spreading rate by half and criss-cross the field two times. Complete the planting process by lightly working the seed into the soil, for example by dragging a bar or log behind (and perpendicular to) the tractor.

For organic applications and when not spreading fertilizer, a grain drill can be used for planting. An for the grain drill, called a “seeder”, is needed to handle the tiny alfalfa seed. You may be able to rent a grain drill with a seeder from a neighbor or from your county agriculture department. Renting a drill costs in the range of $15-$20 per acre.

Depending on the field you are planting into, a “no-till” grain drill may be an option. No-till has the advantage of skipping the tillage step. These drills commonly have “coulters” or discs directly in front of where the seed is planted. Coulters cut plant residue and do a bit of tillage in a small strip just before the seed s are dropped.

Synthetic fertilizer prices have been going up, apparently in relation with the price of crude oil. As a rough estimate, you can figure $75 per acre for fertilizer and $40 per acre for alfalfa-grass seed blend.

Basic Tools of the Trade

Even though we are assuming a modest amount of land for our hay field, there is a minimum stable of equipment necessary. Used equipment will save on the initial dollar investment. And, if haying is our primary use of the equipment, there is plenty of off-season time for the inevitable repairs to aging mechanical tools.


The one tool that will get the most hours of use is the tractor. Buying a used tractor is like buying a used car – you're buying someone else's problems. On the other hand, many vintage tractors were very well made, relatively easy to service, and parts are still available for the popular models.
Keeping in mind the haying tasks our tractor has to perform, these are our recommendations:

  • In general, a medium size tractor, often referred to as a “utility tractor”.

  • 50 horse power or more. Gas or diesel engine.

  • 540 rpm power take off (PTO). This is the standard power transfer to the tools we need. Best is a “live” or “independent” PTO that continues running even when the tractor is clutched.

  • 1 hydraulic remote. This supplies hydraulic power to our haying tools, for example to lift the tool up for road travel or when not in use.

  • Power steering is desirable, required if a front end loader is attached.
Expect to pay at least $5000 for a used, older utility tractor in good condition. Typical popular models include John Deere 2040 or 2240, Oliver 550, Ford 3000 or 4000, Massey Ferguson 235, 240, or 250.


New Holland 472, 7 foot haybine mower-conditioner

A “mower-conditioner” also known as a haybine (which is a trademarked name by New Holland), is the preferred tool for cutting our alfalfa/grass blend. It replaces cutting bar mowers our grandparents used and, before that, sickles, scythes, and cradles. The haybine floats a couple inches off the ground cutting the hay, typically with a bar mower. A tined reel feeds the cut hay into meshed rubber rollers. The rollers crimp, crush, or “condition” the hay, especially the stems so they cure faster. Out of the rear, the hay falls into a windrow.

Mower-conditioners come in sizes based on the cutting width. They range from 7 feet on up with a 7' or 9' being the size needed for our modest sized hay field. A good, used haybine should cost about $2,000. We use a New Holland 461 which is 9 feet wide and was made around 1965.

Hay Rakes

After our hay is cut and cured, it is raked shortly before baling. These tools, perfected in the early 1900's, are used basically as they were 100 years ago. The traditional style has tines attached to a revolving bars that lifts, fluffs, and makes a narrower windrow to one side of the rake. There are also newer wheel rakes and rotary rakes that would work for our modest hay field. We use a John Deere 896A side delivery rake. Used rakes start at about $1,000 for one in good condition.

Small Square Baler


John Deere 327 Square Baler

Surprisingly, hay balers have been around since the 1850's. But, they were called hay presses then and were stationary contraptions producing 250 pound bales. Not convenient. Modern balers consist of a tined pick up that feeds the raked windrow in. A plunger compresses the hay and blades cut it to a uniform length. When enough hay is compressed, needle-like prongs wrap the bale with twine and clever knotters finish tying off the new bale. We use a New Holland 273 baler from the 1960's. Good used balers will start around $3,000. What happens to the bale after exiting stage baler-rear? Stay tuned....

When to Make Hay

On an established hay field, in our area, we usually get three cuttings per year. If the weather is on our side, we get four cuttings. The first cutting is around June 1. The goal is to produce the best balance between yield and nutritional quality. Cutting too early gives a higher proportion of leaves, which is desirable, but reduces yield or what scientists call “dry matter”. As the plants mature and begin to flower or produce seed, the proportion of leaves to stems goes down. Wait too long to cut and the hay tends to have more stems than leaves. Our sheep tend to eat the leaves and scatter the stems around the feeders. A rule of thumb is to look for the alfalfa beginning to blossom. When it reaches the 5-10% flowering stage it is ready to cut. For grasses, experts recommend to cut it at the heading stage. Blends of alfalfa and grass complicates the issue. This is one of those “fuzzy” areas where experience and judgment are priceless. Various grass varieties mature at different times, so no one rule will fit. We feel erring on the side of immaturity is better – a little less yield but more palatable hay.

If you have one, now it is time to get out your crystal ball. The alfalfa and grass are at the perfect maturity and ready to cut. What is the weather forecast? Ideal haying weather is hot, sunny, breezy, and low humidity. You will need about three days of that ideal weather. Day one, you hook up the haybine and cut. Day two the hay dries and cures. Day three you pray the rain holds off.

You probably know that rain and cut hay do not mix well. If you should be so unfortunate to have rain on your cut hay while it is curing, figure that half its value is lost – commercial value. As you know from buying hay yourself, dusty (moldy) hay does not bring much of a price. Sheep do not seem to be so fussy. If we end up with a few slightly dusty bales, we feed them to the sheep and they are as happy as ever. So, nutritional value is a different issue. Yes, there is dry matter loss and nutritional loss. How much just depends on the amount of rain, how dry the hay was before the rain, and how fast it dries off.

Back to making hay.... Day three, here is another one of those “fuzzy” areas. The hay must be dried to a certain point so it will not mold when baled. But, if it becomes too dry, the leaves fall off and blow away before you can get them tucked into the bale. To complicate the matter is the weather. Will the sun come out and dry things off? Will the rain hold off another day? Is there a heavy dew expected?

Assuming all is going to plan, day three is the time to rake as soon as the dew dries off in the morning. The rake flips, fluffs, turns, and makes a narrower, taller windrow. This aids the final drying and curing. If Mother Nature does not cooperate, you may need an additional day of drying and another round with the rake.

Science says that alfalfa should be baled at about 18-20% moisture. Moisture testing probes are available (starting at $200) to help you estimate this. We have found that you will get many different readings with these devices as you test different points around the field – adding to the uncertainty. Another test is to take a hand full of hay from the windrow and form it into a tube shape, long enough to grasp with both hands. Move your hands in a circular motion like they are peddling a bicycle. At the same time try to pull your hands apart by breaking the tube shaped hand full of hay. It is ready to bale if it breaks in three revolutions. Not very scientific sounding – but it works.

Hopefully, by the time you are done raking, the first windrow raked has dried adequately and is ready to bale.

Now the Fun Begins

Suppose we have managed to get our crop of hay cut, cured, raked, and baled, we still have to get it in the barn. There are a few choices here: traditional hay wagon pulled behind the baler; bale kicker, or “stack wagon”.

If you have more labor available than investment capital, the traditional approach may appeal to you. Remember those hot summer days, perhaps in your childhood, driving down the road with the car windows open taking in the country scenery? You look out across the freshly cut field to see a tractor pulling a hay baler, followed by a wagon crawling slowly through the field. The wagon is stacked with bales of sweet smelling hay and several not-so-sweet smelling men doing the stacking. The stackers are in line like a fire brigade. One person takes the bale as it is pushed out the rear of the baler and throws it up to the next person, who throws it up... you get the picture. This is the least up-front cost method of getting your bales from the field to the barn.

Less labor is needed for the bale kicker. A wagon with strong sides is needed to catch the bales as they are ejected from the baler. Kickers are rather dangerous and the wagons with high sides are expensive. For example, back at the barn feeding a broken bale into the baler, forgetting that you need a catching wagon attached, can be embarrassing when the bale lands on your mother-in-law's car. Or, at the end of the hay field, you turn to line the baler up with the next windrow and the baler decides it has a bale ready at that precise moment when the catching wagon is turned. The bale misses the wagon and could end up in the road. Even after you get the wagon load of bales to the barn, odds are good, one or more broke when being ejected and you have a large mess waiting to be unloaded.

An improved variation of the kicker idea is more of a dropper approach. A chute type of attachment is added to the baler. The chute is inclined so that bales pushed out the end of the chute fall into a “basket wagon”. The basket wagon holds about 100 bales before you need to go back to the barn or bale elevator and dump them. Used basket wagons cost about $2,000.

The handling option we employ uses a cleverly designed wagon that picks up the bales and automatically stacks them. To use this “stack wagon”, the baler is equipped with a device that turns the bale ¼ turn when it drops to the ground. The operator of the stack wagon drives around the field lining up a chute on the stack wagon with each bale. The wagon picks the bale up off the ground and conveys it to a bed holding 15 bales in a 3x5 pattern. When that bed is full, it tips up 90 degrees pushing the bales back on another platform that holds seven rows of these 15 bale stacks. Back at the barn, the entire wagon bed of 105 bales pivots to unload the stack – hopefully intact. To minimize labor, a barn with a wooden floor is best so the bottom row of bales does not mold. Otherwise you may still have to manually restack the hay. We currently use a New Holland “Stackliner” 1033 stacking wagon. Used Stackliners start around $5,000. New stack wagons are about $40,000.


Bale Elevator

Unless you are using a stack wagon and unloading directly on a suitable floor, you will want a bale elevator. These can range from 16 feet long conveyors to much longer with wheels and gears/pulleys to vary the angle and height. Usually they have electric motors to move bales from your hay wagon to a bale loft. As you can imagine, this is definitely a job for more than one person. Send the youngest and fittest person up in the top of the hot, dusty barn to do the stacking. If you can find a used bale elevator, expect to pay about $400.

The Payoff

Your bales-per-acre yield is dependent on many variables. In addition to soil quality, one of the largest uncertainties is rainfall. In our area, central Michigan, with adequate rainfall we hope for 200 bales per acre per year. Actual mileage may vary.


The downside to having all these tools in general, used haying tools in particular, is that they will wear out and will break down. Why is it they always break down when you are using them? If you've read this far and are preparing a budget, you should factor in something for repairs and maintenance, $500 per year might be a good number for starters.

You will also need a place to store this equipment. Balers in particular, must be out of the weather. The way they do their job, there is always partial bale inside and you do not want that hay getting wet. If you do not have room for your seasons baled hay and the haying tools as well, one option is to rent indoor storage from a neighbor.

An option for reducing the start-up costs is the sharing of tools. If you have a close neighbor wanting to grow hay, split the cost of the equipment. Scheduling who-gets- what-when, needs to be worked out ahead of haying season. One way to share the maintenance costs with co-owned tools is the worst-luck method: whoever has the tool when it breaks down is responsible for the repair. Co-ownership can work but there are pitfalls.

Mentioned earlier was the life expectancy of a hay field, about 7 years. Remember that at that time, you should practice “crop rotation”. Your next hay seeding should be in a different area where alfalfa has not been grown for at least one year.

To prolong the life of your hay field, you should fertilize it after the third year. Ideally you would have applied three years worth of P and K with the initial planting. The best time to apply fertilizer or “top dressing” is immediately after cutting. Some growers fertilizer annually.

Weeds and pests can reduce your yield and shorten the life of your alfalfa stand. Weeds compete with your cultivated forage for water, sunlight, and nutrients. Of course, sheep may like the taste of many plants we consider “weeds” so a few dandelions are not a big concern. Weeds like thistle, our sheep and most livestock do not eat and should be removed. Often, simply cutting your hay at the proper time will control most weeds by preventing them from seeding out. Particularly pesky species should be manually hoed.

In the “pest” department, the alfalfa weevil may show up before your first cutting. You can spray to kill them. Organic control is by cutting the hay early, before the weevil turns all your leaves into skeletons. Early cutting seems to break their life cycle and they aren't such a problem for later cuttings. Leaf hoppers can also be a problem. Attempt to control them the same way: spray or bale early. (Sometimes you have to choose between the lesser of two weevils.)

Buy hay or Grow Your Own

Unfortunately no one can answer that except you. What is it worth to have control over the quality of your hay? Or, to have your own organic hay? Perhaps you can sell your extra production to offset expenses.
We may not have painted a pretty picture of producing hay. But, as the advertisement goes:

  • Tractor: $5,000
  • Baler: $3,000
  • Relaxing on a stack of your own freshly baled, sweet smelling hay: priceless.

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