May 21, 2013

Homestead Haying

May is the month we get our first cutting of hay. If you were to ask me what kind of hay it is, I honestly couldn't say. Hay is roughly classified as grass or legume, sometimes a mix. Likely I'd tell you ours is "weedy". It's just what grows here, but it's what we've got, so it's what we use.

We cut our first hay three years ago, in May of 2010. We'd just gotten goats and had about an acre of then unfenced field that we didn't want to go to waste. Dan bought his first scythe and had at it.

Dan practicing the technique.
Dan cutting hay with a scythe. These 1st two photos are from 3
years ago. I didn't take new ones 'cuz they'd look just the same. :)

The results
After he cut it, we let it dry on the ground, raked it up, hauled it, piled it up, and covered it with a tarp. I worried about that "hay." It certainly wasn't as pretty as the hay we could buy already baled. In fact, we bought some of that pretty baled hay, just to make sure I wasn't cheating my goats out of the good stuff. Imagine my surprise when they turned up their noses at the boughten hay in favor of our weedy homegrown hay. I later learned this is because the weeds are richer in minerals than grass. Goats have high mineral needs and so preferred the weedy hay.

We learned quite a bit about storing hay too. Or should I say, how not to store it. We thought the tarp would keep the rain off, but discovered that most of the hay became moldy under that tarp. From that lesson we learned several things.
  1. The hay must be thoroughly dried. If it's still green when stacked, it will generate heat as it decomposes and will work its way into compost. This can also result in spontaneous combustion, so that the hay actually catches fire.
  2. It must have air circulation, both on top and underneath.
Eventually we decided to turn the coal barn's carport into our hay storage, or hay "mow". This carport had a concrete slab, which we hoped would keep it off the damp ground.

Our carport hay mow. Dan put up welded wire fence to  hold the hay.
We later had to put up tarps too, to protect it from rain.

What we learned, is that when the air temperature and humidity are just right, the concrete will sweat. Not good for hay.

There are any number of ways to keep hay off the ground. Pallets would be good if available. Even free, however, pallets would require driving to go them pick up, which is time and fuel. Free would still be better than buying, but if we can, we look about for a homestead solution. I learned through research that, back in the day, farmers would pile branches as a base on which to put hay. Branches are something of which we have plenty.

Remains of last year's hay on right, the stick bed for this year's on left

Currently we have two pastures we can cut for hay. The goats eat what they want and we scythe the rest. The grasses and legumes keep growing, the goats keep eating, and we get a second and third cutting as well. There is a difference in these cuttings, and, in fact, hay is classified by which cut it is: first, second, or third (maybe even fourth depending on where it's grown).
  1. First cutting hay is made in the late spring and typically has more stems. It will have a higher percentage of grasses than legumes, which grow more slowly. Some say it also has more weeds, which goats love. It's usually richer in fiber and carbohydrates.
  2. Second cutting is the summer cut. It is usually leafier with fewer stems, and supposedly fewer weeds (unless we grew it. :)  It is said to be lower in sugars because of faster growth, but rich in other nutrients.
  3. Third cutting is the the last summer of fall cut. It usually contains more of the slow growing legumes and is rich in nutrients. Sometimes it is considered too rich for horses, but there is no problem for goats.

With all cuttings, I like to get them before the plants go to seed. This isn't always possible when one hays by hand, but nutrients decrease at flowering, when the plant begins to put all its energy into the flower and seed.

Alphie helps as a taste tester.

We had rain just this past weekend, which meant a shift of gears back to working on the hallway. I managed to rake up the dry stuff before that, and as long as the rest of it has a chance to dry, it should be okay. If it begins to get moldy or mildewed, it goes into the compost.

I don't mind saying that I sometimes wish we had a sickle mower. It would certainly make the job faster and less tiring! But at least we have two scythes and plenty of grass to cut. I can't complain about that.

Homestead Haying © May 2013 


Su Ba said...

Wow, you two are just as crazy as I am, doing all that work by hand. Boy, I give you a LOT of credit! When I use to store hay, I found that the best place was in the loft of a wooden, airy barn. The heat generated on a sunny day warmed the loft, causing air circulation and helping to dry the hay. We loose stacked, leaving channels for air movement. One year I made the mistake of putting the hay in a new metal barn. When I went to use it, I discovered that it had all molded. That's when I realized that the air didn't move through a metal barn plus the inside of the metal walls and roof had the tendency to sweat. Bad combination for hay.

Tombstone Livestock said...

That is a lot of hay to cut by hand, stack and store. Maybe some day you can find an old sickle mower that can be put back to good use.

Still waiting on a Ziggy update....

The Cranky said...

Wow, the two of you are definitely assiduous! So lucky you have Alphie around to be a taste tester; what would you do without him?

Hope Ziggy is doing well.

Anonymous said...

It's also useful to deliberately avoid cut your meadow hay some years. Rather let the grasses go to seed and let the seeds fall back onto the pasture. That will also mean keeping your goats off the pasture so that the seed heads can form and mature but it keeps your pasture going a few more years and you don't have to repasture as often.


Tyche's Minder said...

Super interesting. I wondered how exactly this was done by hand or if even possible anymore.

Leigh said...

Su Ba, crazy, probably! But it isn't out of any noble motives. We'd dearly love to have a farm tractor (even a two-wheeled on) with the proper implements to do the job. It's just that a scythe is about the only tool in our price range. :p

TL, I've actually been on the lookout for a used sickle mower. They come up on craigslist from time to time.

Ziggy, I fear, got her wish and got Elvis for her baby daddy. I figure she's either carrying quints or bigguns.

Jacqueline, actually all the goats love to help. Gruffy, especially, gives the wheelbarrow a good workout while giving himself a good scratch!

Fran, pasture maintenance as well as pasture establishment are two subjects I've been studying. I should mention that with scything, it's very easy to leave some to go to seed because it's impossible to cut it as thoroughly and uniformly as a machine. :). This particular field was neglected long before we bought the place, so that it grows mostly weeds now. Our goal is to have about 4 or 5 half acre pastures, plus browse areas in the woods, to rotate the goats through. Every year we're taking one area, testing and remineralizing the soil, and planting a mixed grass/legume pasture. We'll continue to work on one every year, with a view toward maintenance.

Tyche's Minder, yes, it's possible! And I have to say that it really puts the "slow" in "slow life". ;)

Leigh said...

Su Ba, P.S. I forgot to thank you for mentioning the barn loft. We've got plans in the works for a small "barn," including a hay loft! Nice to know this works so well.

Woolly Bits said...

I love to look at somebody scything away, it looks gracious and fluid... when I tried it myself years back, it didn't feel very gracious though - after an hour or so I thought my arm is going to fall off:) it's a lot of work - but over here hay doesn't really work out well anyway. it never dries properly, which is why farmers over here make silage and not hay anymore! unfortunately it doesn't smell half as nice as hay does:(

Andrew said...

I had good luck for years with the springs from a mattress under my hay pile. Just picked the "fluff" off an old mattress and just left the wire. It made for a fun moon-walk experience when storing and retrieving hay.

I started out with a walk-behind sickle bar mower. Darn things are hit-or miss. I mean, the grass has to have a pretty stiff stem and be standing perfectly upright and then there's only a certain percentage of the grass it'll cut off. Most of the drawback is the vibration. It'll kill wrists and loosen the brainpan. Ha ha. I ended up getting a walk-behind rotary bushhog (42" cutting deck). The DR is probably the only thing still on the market like it. I was worried it would dice up the grass so much it would be worthless. No, not really. The bushhog blades tend to throw it out in 8" lengths rather than chopping it up like a lawnmower. Rakes up just fine with a pitchfork. The machine is a lot lot easier on me than the sicklebar was. I rake it green and dry it on open tarps because I tend to get thunderstorms in the hay seasons. It'll keep the dew off overnight, but yes, you don't want to leave it in there.

Cat Eye Cottage said...

How amazing are you that you are able to grow and harvest your own hay? I am continuously amazed.

Renee Nefe said...

Here free pallets are easy to come by. The place I got the ones for my Girl Scout bridge was thrilled that I wanted them, and sad that I only needed 3 of them. I like the old bed spring idea too. My friend has stuff growing in her hay barn...and the cats like to get in there and use the hay as litter. :p
I'm sure all that hand work keeps you all very fit.

MTWaggin said...

The information you share is amazing! I love the ingenious things you all figure out!

The Stay @ Home-Gardener said...

Leigh, I Did not realize when i awoke this morning, that i would learn about hay! Quite interesting. Makes me think about getting a goat, but as a dairy less vegetarian... Im not sure what the purpose of one would be! Ha

Leigh said...

Bettina, yes, scything makes for aching arms! Hopefully someday we'll have another device to help. :) I can empathize with the humidity. We're usually fortunate enough to have a dry spell here and there, making the drying of hay possible.

Andrew, I appreciate that about the sickle mower! Vibrations are annoying and wearying. I didn't realize the bushhog would leave such long pieces. Our lawnmower is one of those "mulching" types, but I can still use it for chicken coop litter and bedding for the goats.

Candace, it's waste not want not!

Renee, yes, barns need barn cats! I told Dan that when we get our "barn" built, I'll get two kittens to live in the feed room ('cuz Riley'd never let them in the house!)

Sherry, it would have been a shame to let that grass go to waste!

Cloud, thanks! Actually, if you end up with a lot of brush to control, goats (brush goats) would be good for that. They make good pets too. And there are always folks in the market for kids, especially doe kids. Maybe a little side income(?)

Renee Nefe said...

My friend's barn cats live just in the barn. She has a cage similar to a rabbit hutch that she shuts them up into when the barn is open for any reason... she doesn't want the cats to be eaten by coyotes. The cats keep the mice and snakes at bay.

Linda said...

That is awesome! I am working on something similar with my goats.

Linda said...

Oh and I forgot!, I was worried about how to keep the hay off the ground and now I know thanks to you! Thank you! This was really a great post. Thanks for sharing!

Rosanne said...

When my dad farmed in West Virginia, we would make haystacks. Dad would cut a pole from the woods usually 20 ft or so long with an axe. Sat it in the ground like a fence post. We would haul the hay in to the post by horse and sled. You worked the hay in a circle around the pole large (15 to 20 ft) to a peak near the top working the hay as you go. As the oldest sibling I was always the one working the hay around the pole. Dad would have to throw a rope to the top for me to use to get down. Goodness that was 45 years ago. We would put 8 to 10 haystacks in the meadow and use branches to build fences around the haystacks and remove as the cows and horses needed hay in the winter. We did this for years until dad could buy a tractor and baler. No cover on the haystack, I don't know why you couldn't do this on a smaller scale for goats. Just sharing how farmers in the West Virginia hills did it years ago from personal experience.
Love checking in with you every day!

Ed said...

I've seen a few people buy horse drawn sickle mowers used by the amish and adapt them to pull with an atv. Very portable and the price is right it you already have an atv.

Kate said...

Roseanne, what does "working the hay around the pole" mean? Did you walk on it around and around to compact it, or was some other activity involved?

Anonymous said...

Very nice blog, from what I've seen so far. Just FYI, by taking away our ability to right-click, it makes navigation more of a pain. If there's a link in an entry that I want to read later, I can't open it in a new tab by right clicking. Some external links just take me right off your website altogether - which is a great way to lose readers who are following links and end up not on your page at all anymore.

Leigh said...

Renee, yes, coyotes are something that definitely have to be protected against. Wolves too, and owls!

Linda, I'm so glad this is helpful! I think I learn the most when others share too.

Rosanne, very interesting. I have to echo Kate in regards to more information about this. Sounds like something some of us could use even now.

Ed, that's a really good idea. We don't have an ATV, but maybe our old ride-on lawn mower(???) Every now and then horse drawn equipment shows up for sale around here. Trouble is, it's usually priced as an "antique."

Kate, good questions! I'd like a little more info too.

Anonymous, I have to tell you that I find it annoying too, for my own use on my own blog, especially those links in the sidebar you mention. AFAIK, there's no way add the target="_blank" tag for those. The reason I added no right click is because folks were helping themselves to my photos by the dozens. And dozens. And dozens. I've even had whole posts stolen. That annoyed me far more than my own inconvenience or reader numbers. I reckon if folks find something useful here, they'll either bookmark it, follow, or subscribe via a blog reader. If not, they won't be back whether they can right click or not.

Bridget said...

Wow! What a lot of hard work. Having done this in the past I do know how much work is involved. So much satisfaction though.

Evil One said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim K. said...


I love your blog! You're inspiring my wife and I to go for that 5 acres we've always wanted.

We're currently on a half acre with 4 goats, a dozen or so chickens, some fruit trees and a large garden.

I purchased a European snath and scythe about two months ago and love it! I've been practicing on the vacant fields around our hose and can't wait to make our first hay mow. I'm also using it to mow the small amount of lawn we have every week!

Have you seen this site on haymaking?

Looks like a cheap and easy (although labour intensive) way of storing your hay. And, as I'm fond of telling my wife, "the old ways are best" LOL.

Best of luck and I hope we can trade tips and ideas.

Cuds 'N Suds Farm

Rosanne said...

Sorry for lack of information. Yes, Kate, I would walk around and around on the hay as dad pitched it with a pitchfork to compact it. I also would wrap it around the pole with a pitchfork as I went. It is a very labor intense way of stacking hay, but it does work. With a tall hapstack after the animals would feed on it for a while you would have to pull the hay out with a pitchfork. There is very little waste when feeding cattle but horses are a little pickier about their hay and won't eat the outside of the haystack as a cow will. I hope this answers your questions. If not I'll try again. lol
As Jim K stated, there are web sites with old haymaking ways shown.

luckybunny said...

This post was very interesting but also very useful to me, thank you! Loads of work for you guys but so glad to know you can get hay and also the lessons you've learned about keeping it. Great post. I've saved it so I can read it again later, lots of useful info :)

Unknown said...

Great info Leigh - and I had to laugh at the caption of Dan scything the grass!

You know your field isn't really weedy since a weed is only a plant in the wrong place. Your 'weeds' are definitely in the right place :)

Leigh said...

Bridget, thanks. I agree it's worth it. Hopefully we'll be able to streamline the process as we gain experience.

Jim K., thank you and welcome! Sounds like you have a very productive half acre! Dan has both an American and European snath and scythe and definitely prefers the European model. And thank you so much for the link, Very interesting photos, sounds just like Rosanne described. I so much agree with you that the old ways are best.

Rosanne, you probably didn't expect we'd all be so interested, LOL. Thank you for the details. Very interesting and useful.

Donna, it always makes me happy when someone tells me my posts are useful. I love sharing information, and love learning it from others too.

Tanya, LOL. Maybe I need to redefine weeds. "A weed is any plant that neither the goats nor us will eat."

Willow said...

Good for you,so much great info you hae shared. Haying is hard work for years we use to pick up our own hay off the field as it was cut.
Oh and " Hi there" I am Willow ...your new follower came by way of MT Waggin.

Leigh said...

Willow, hello and welcome! Did you pick it up as bales? Those are heavy!

Meredith said...

I would LOVE a post with more detail on actually using the scythe to cut the hay... What type of scythe do you use? Did it require a big learning curve to get the technique down?

Leigh said...

Meredith, Dan's first scythe was an "American." We later bought him a "European" model and he likes it much better. For one thing it's built according to the user's height and it just seems to handle better. Our American had fixed handles, so likely it was just a decorative reproduction sold new at the hardware store. There are some good videos listed in this post. That was basically how Dan learned.