Saturday, September 5, 2020

A few thoughts on pastures and hayfields


I have been at Mom's since 8:00 AM Friday.

I did some outside maintenance. Nothing impressive, just a few things that needed doing.

Pasture Plants

I took a stroll around the pasture this afternoon, mentally cataloging some of the species in the sward.

In addition to the usual forage grasses I have an assortment of weeds. I have smartweed, ragweed, chickory, buckhorn plantain, crabgrass, sorrel (aka, curly dock), lambsquarters, and then I have the "bad weeds" Canadian thistle, Junctus and goosegrass.

A good weed is a weed that cattle will eat provided it is young and tender. A bad weed is a weed that cattle won't touch and tends to spread. One advantage cutting hay has is that it tends to reduce the number of "bad weeds" compared to grazing.

On the plus side I have oodles of white clover, red clover and a good "catch" of birdsfoot trefoil.

The red clover seeds came in with some of the big, round bales of hay.

Putting something back

One of my neighbors has a hayfield "out back". It isn't huge. They currently get about fifteen big round-bales a year off of it. Somebody shows up. It gets cut and baled.

Then the neighbor sells it.

They have been cutting that field for over twenty years and never put a dollar into it. Oddly, the yields have been petering out and the days of getting high-dollar alfalfa prices are long gone.

A pound of potassium costs about $0.65 at current prices.

An 800 pound bale of hay takes off about 18 pounds of potassium or about $12 worth of potassium off the property. It also takes about 6 pounds of phosphorous which might run another $3.

That same bale of hay is worth $50 to $65 at current prices. As small square bales of alfalfa, that same hay commands $120-to-$160.

That is one reason why I like grazing. The vast majority of the nutrients that go into the animal's mouth comes out the animal's back-end and stays on my property. 

The only P and K that leave the property literally walk off as added weight on the animals.

I can see the field owner's resistance to putting money into the field, though. By taking the easy way (minimal involvement, low labor) they are getting nicked for the cost of custom cutting and baling. Then they are getting the lower price for the round-bales. The $15 of added nutrients per bale of hay probably eats up much of their margin.

I don't know what the cost structure of having somebody come in and cut the hay. My neighbor's analysis is valid if the cost is purely on a per-bale basis. But if there is a "fixed" component to what they are charged then doubling or tripling the number of bales taken per cutting dilutes that cost on a per-bale basis.

Ultimately, their business model is making money because they are strip-mining the nutrients out of their soil.


  1. Strip mining the soil is now the norm around here where hay is nearly all made for horses and hobby beef. I've had a lot of people ask to cut my fields but none would commit to annual fertilization so I declined. I know that most people think that food is an assured item in the stores and it will never be grown here again but ruining our soils is a very dangerous thing to do to the future.---ken

  2. Stewardship is a mindset. I'll bet money that theres a lot of potential repairs/deferred maintenance items on that property also


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