Monday, September 16, 2019

The Shrewd King 9.1: Cutting hay, Part I

Denny looked out over one-hundred acres of chest-tall grass blowing in the gentle, late-June breeze.

It had occurred to him while he was eating breakfast that this is when he usually started buying hay for his horses. It did not register in his mind that much of that "new cutting" hay had been sitting in barns for three or more weeks.

Hay is a natural product and varies wildly in quality. Horses demand the very highest quality hay. It cannot be the least bit moldy, nor can it be primarily stalks and stems. Conversely, it cannot be all alfalfa or it will disturb their digestion. The other complication with alfalfa and clover is that pure stands tend to mat down when cut. Air does not circulate through it and it does not dry well. Furthermore, they will lose most of its leaves if dried it too much, leaves being the most nutritious part of the hay.

Farmers who specialize in alfalfa hay, for instance, have cutters that crimp and crush the stems so they dry at the same rate as the leaves, partially overcoming the issue of over-drying the leaves to ensure that the stems were dry enough to not mold in storage.

Hay also varies by when it is cut. First cutting grass hay tends to have many stems and stalks and relatively few of the more nutritious leaves. Second and third cuttings tend to have a much higher proportion of leaves but are much, much smaller than the first cutting in terms of tonnage.

Denny had driven by this field a hundred times but had never walked it. For reasons that were opaque to him, his none of his neighbors liked him. Not that he noticed. His neighbors’ reactions were identical to the people he interacted with socially and at work.

The property in question had been owned by an elderly couple who had both died during the epidemic. In spite of Denny’s hints, which he thought were subtle, they had never harvested the river-bottoms for hay, preferring instead to keep in in a conservation program that protected the nesting habitat of bottomland and prairie bird species.

Denny had never bothered to study grass species. By his reckoning, there were only two kinds of grass. The short grass was always called Kentucky Bluegrass and the taller grass, the kind harvested for hay, was always called Bromegrass.

That is what Denny called the grass in the bales of hay and if the people selling the hay knew the grass was Orchardgrass or Perennial Ryegrass or Tall Fescue they knew better than to correct a man who was pulling $100 bills out of his wallet.

As Denny gazed over the wind rippled field, he marveled at the shear mass of the growing forage. Completely out of character, he bent over and pulled some stems of grass out of the ground. Lush, long, wide blades clung to the stems. A blade emerged every three or four inches stem, more than a dozen blades to the stem. It was the leafiest grass Denny had ever seen.

A sour grin twisted Denny’s face. That is when he knew he had been screwed by folks selling him grass hay. He was lucky to find first-cutting grass-hay that was half leaves and this was easily three-quarter leaves.

Looking over at his second son, Wesley, Denny said “Cut it all. What we don’t use we can sell.”

Wesley was the one Denny trusted with the horses and farm equipment.

Wesley looked dubiously at the low, flat field. He could smell the muck. “What if the tractor gets stuck?” Wesley asked.

Denny had already told Wesley that they were behind the eight-ball for time and that they were going to use the tractor to cut and bale the hay.

“That is what the servants are for” Denny said. “They can push you out.”

“Now stop wasting daylight. No telling how long this weather is going to last” Denny said.

Not knowing any better, Wesley left the equipment to run at the height the farmer had it set at when he parked it in the barn thirty years ago.

The low field had many tussocks and anthills that reached up out of nowhere and grabbed the sickle-bar cutter. The first time it happened it was right in front of Denny…who promptly bit Wesley’s head off.

Wesley had to shut-down to make the adjustments on the ancient equipment. He had to cold chisel off the bolts since they were so rusty the heads no longer had any form to them. He replaced them with new. It took him two hours to raise the cutter four inches.

And Westley promptly ran into another anthill.

And Denny ripped him a new asshold.

And Wesley shut down to raise the bar some more and it only took thirty minutes to make adjustments.

And he hit another anthill.

And he raised the bar so it was a full twelve inches above ground level.

And then Denny chewed him out for wasting hay.

So Wesley dropped the bar down two inches.

Under Denny’s hectoring, Wesley tried to make up time by running in a higher gear at maximum RPM.

He lunched the cutter-bar when he hit the next anthill.

It took him the rest of the day to swap out the cutter bar with an even older one they found in the back of the barn. The rust-thinned frame of the hay-cutter was twisted and warped from the forces generated by the cutter bar crashing. 

Nothing wanted to line-up on reassembly.

By the end of the day, Wesley had cut just a bit less than an acre of the hundred acre field.

Even though he did not maximize the cut, he still put over five thousand pounds of dry matter on the ground for hay.


  1. Replies
    1. I saw this happen again this year, perhaps lured by sky-high prices. They took the first cutting in AUGUST. And, as you surmise, they cut a field of Reed Canarygrass which is barely edible when young and lush.

  2. In 96 I visited a Japanese dairy farm outside of Hakodate. Although near the coast the terrain was more Alpine, with all pastures and hay fields being narrow, steep sided creek valleys. Watching tractors on those slopes was terrifying, but more to the point it appeared they turned all their hay into haylage. I never thought to ask why, even if there hadn't been a language barrier.

    1. Haylage is a great choice where rains are frequent. Some parts of Michigan on the west side get lake-effect rain as damp air is kicked up in elevation it cools and drops rain. It can rain a little bit every day for weeks.


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