May 1, 2019

Soil Building Experiment #3: Hay Growing

Hay fields = hidey places for mice = good hunting.

Last year I started a series of blog posts on building better soil. Some of you may recall my map.

Photo from Carbon and Soil Building: Designing a Plan

I've blogged about building soil in our permanent pastures (in pink):

For hay and other field crops (in blue), we're doing something different. We're alternating green manure crops with harvest crops.

Fall planted green manure of oats, wheat, winter peas, and clover

In mid-April I broadcast a mixture of sorgham-sudan grass, crimson clover, and cowpeas. Then Dan mowed the winter's growth to cover the seed. The last thing we did was to cover this with a layer of old hay. This was an idea we picked up from a Greg Judy video (which now I can't find) as a way to quickly build soil.

I seeded, then Dan mowed. A cart of hay is at the ready for the next step.

The freshly cut grass and clover will provide nitrogen for plant growth, while the hay will provide carbon to feed soil microorganisms. These are key to building soil. (See Carbon: What I Didn't Know)

We had discussed buying hay for this purpose, but didn't actually do it until Dan went to buy hay for the goats.  The ad offered a choice of oat or millet hay advertised as covered. In our region that's important, because our intense southern sun leaches nutrients and rain spoils it. When Dan got there, he saw it had only been covered with plastic.

The bales looked like they'd been sitting wet for a long time.

We haven't found plastic to do a good job of keeping hay dry and this hay confirmed that. Dan told the seller our goats wouldn't eat it. So the fellow offered him two free bales. Thinking of feeding our pastures, Dan took him up on it. We wouldn't give it to the goats, but at $20 per round bale we could certainly use it for building our soil.

On the bale bottoms the hay had decomposed to rich black soil.

When I removed the netting and started peeling off the layers, I found that it probably would have been good hay had it been stored properly. Most of it was leafy and looked to have been cut while it was still alive.

However, it was full of seeds, which indicated that it was cut past its prime. The most nutritious hay must be harvested before the grass goes to seed, assuming cutting and drying conditions are ideal, i.e. about a week of dry sunny weather. Unfortunately that isn't always the case.

We covered the mown grasses with old hay, focusing on areas of bare soil. 

The seed looked to be browntop millet, an annual grass commonly grown for hay. If it's is viable, we got both mulch plus more hay seed!

Here it is two weeks later.

We did the same by our fruit trees

See Soil Building Experiment #1

and also where we grew our winter wheat.

See Saving the Wheat

Now we wait and hope for good hay cutting and curing weather when the time comes.


Su Ba said...

Wow, you lucky duck! I wish I could get round bales of anything that cheap. I'd buy a bunch.

You're idea sounds like a good one.

Leigh said...

Su Ba, thanks! Dan says he wishes he'd gotten more but we can only haul one bale at a time in our little trailer so hauling those four was an afternoon's work. :)

Retired Knitter said...

Gosh - there is a lot to consider when buying hay! Did you guys live on a farm before doing this - or did you just learn all this from research?

Ed said...

A couple thoughts today. First, at least in our state, every county has a State Extension office where you can take soil to be tested for free or either a very reasonable fee. (It used to be free but I can't recall if it still is.) They give you guidelines on how to take soil samples and average over any field. The results give you detailed analysis of your soil and tells you what minerals are missing and how much is needed to get things back up to par. We do this over our farm every few years and I've been a true believer in them.

My second thought is that generally we don't wrap any bales unless they are going to be used for silage and then they are 100% plastic wrapped. Some people used to plastic wrap just the exterior round portions leaving the faces exposed but I don't think the extra cost justifies the amount preserved. Bales left outside will naturally develop a crust of bad hay on the exterior surface that will preserve the interior portions. You just have to scrape off the exterior bad had to get to the good hay much like what you discovered. Then of course there is net wrapped which is similar to not wrapping at all but does prevent loss from moving around from location to location. We only use that for bales that we are selling because otherwise it is a pain to take off and then dispose of so it doesn't get tangled up in things later on.

wyomingheart said...

Great job, Leigh! I can't wait to see the results of that hay field. I know there are rich nutrients in that hay. When we got here on the ridge, there were several round bales of hay at the bottom of our property, by the creek. We have only used a couple of them. We layered a few on top of the dirt last year before I tilled up the garden. What a difference from last year to this year. The soil is much more brown than it was orange last year. I am planning on using a few more bales this fall, which will hopefully build micronutrients through out the winter... fingers crossed! Thanks so much for sharing all your knowledge!

Leigh said...

RT, we've learned most of this the hard way! lol No, we had no experience before we ventured into this lifestyle, so the learning has been by a lot of trial and error. The goats have helped, of course. The adage that "goats will eat anything" is very far from the truth!

Ed, good information. I haven't had my soil tested in awhile, but you've reminded me I really should get an update. Also interesting about your experience with hay. I read about silage when I was researching to write Prepper's Livestock Handbook but admit it seemed like a lot of work.

Wyomingheart, I hope it was a good job! We are definitely noticing better forage this spring, which is a relief. I know it takes awhile to get soil built well, but good forage is a good sign that we're heading in the right direction.

Cockeyed Jo said...

You got to plant something on fallow ground or Mother Nature will seed it with something you don't want. We've been doing orchard grass (for rabbits and chicken feed) and assorted grains like wheat, barley, millet, and oats in our 1/4 acre orchard for two years now. We use old wet hay to cover the the seeds with every spring and late fall to compost and keep unwanted weeds out with moderate success. We've even planted our sweet, field, and popcorn interspersed with black oil sunflower seeds. This year's harvest we'll reach 50% self sustainability in livestock feed with about 25% for human consumption. Cockeyed Jo

Leigh said...

Jo, sounds like you are on the track to success!

KathyB. said...

I am so excited to read this ! We're working on our pastures too, and it has been a learning experience for sure. Actually, reading this post shows me we are both doing similar things, VERY similar things with our land . We're trying to grow healthy pastures for my sheep, as well as raise chickens, vegetable gardens, etc. I will checking out the links and keeping up with you. thank-you !

Rose said...

I hope it works like it is supposed to...feels good to complete something like this, doesn't it.

Leigh said...

Kathy, using barn litter to cover forage seed has worked very, very well for us. That and grazing rotation. It's a seasonal project so it's slow, but it's such a relief to be going in the right direction!

Rose, exactly! It's working like it's supposed to. Funny how we humans are so slow to figure out a place in the scheme of things.

Nancy In Boise said...

Great score on the hay!

Leigh said...

Nancy, I agree!

Chris said...

Carbon is all good, soil building food! :) Great price you got there, and it's a shame the farmer you purchased it from, didn't put it on their own fields. But not a shame for you guys. Maybe he needed the money, more?

Leigh said...

Chris, he was going to dump it in the woods, or so he told Dan. But he wasn't a farmer. I don't recall his occupation, but it was a "good" one and I was surprised he was messing with the hay in the first place. Of course, why was he trying to sell it as hay if all it was good for was dumping in the woods!

I live in a agriculturally backward area; sold out to industrialized agribiz. Even though there are no huge industrial farms in my part of the state, that's the mindset anyway, with everything here geared toward lawn and landscaping. That makes it hard to find good information and resources for environmentally sound farming. It's also probably why our neighbors think we're nuts, lol.

Sam I Am...... said...

Very interesting as usual. I do have a question though....when mowing after you sow the seed doesn't that throw the seed out of the mower? Or is that the idea? Just curious.

Mama Pea said...

You two are such good stewards of the land! I get shivers just reading or thinking about hay or straw for mulch that is full of seeds. The amount of hay we can make from our small hay field doesn't contain seeds because we cut it at the right time but any time we've had to purchase hay or straw we've been so disappointed to find it has crop or weed seeds in it. Drives me bonkers when I use it for mulch!

Leigh said...

Sam, good question. Sometimes he uses the lawnmower, sometimes the sickle mower, sometimes the scythe. But the new seed always grows, so all I can tell you is that it works!

Mama Pea, those seeds are especially a problem when it's used for garden mulch. I've introduced more "weeds" that way! Using it for pasture or hay growing areas seems to make more sense because of that. I'm still working on perfecting my wood chip mulch technique, and hope to have a blog post about that one of these days too.

Chris said...

LOL, Leigh, we're probably a little "nuts" here too. We live in a cul-de-sac of mostly trade-workers. They like to work hard during the week, and play hard on the weekends. Which leaves only enough time for mowing the lawn, or burning it. Not bad people. They're friendly and I trust them, if we asked for help. But have blinkers on, as far as soil building is concerned.

Leigh said...

Chris, I think the important thing is to be respectful of and friendly toward neighbors. Building good relationships with neighbors goes a long way toward opening doors. Sounds like you all are doing just that.