Haymaking and Bushhogging

We bought hay equipment when we were getting the farm established.  It seemed obvious to me that if we were going to be “sustainable” we’d need to be able to make our own hay.  So every year I spend several very long days mowing, raking, baling and storing hay.  Last year it rained all summer so we lost much of the hay and I worried that what we put up would end up igniting and burning down the barn. The year before that the fall drought caused us to run out of hay.  I don’t mind the work (in fact I enjoy it), but making hay does bring its share of headaches and troubles.

This year we’re planning to sell the hay equipment.  A couple of farmers I know and respect (from Mountain Run Farm and Our Father’s Farm) had me pretty close to convinced that it makes better sense to buy hay than to make it.  After reading Gaining Ground by Forrest Pritchard, I’m now totally convinced.  Considering how little hay we use, the price we get for the equipment should be enough to keep us stocked with quality hay for years.  Most importantly, we’ll be importing nutrients from other farms, rather than shipping them off our farm or shuffling them from our hayfields to our pastures.  I’m now convinced, for lots of reasons, that buying our hay is more sustainable than making it.  We’ll have to worry about drought years when hay is scarce, but as long as we keep 2 years’ supply on hand we should be OK.  I’m actually looking forward to not having to worry about getting the hay in.

Of course we can’t just let the fields and pastures grow without any mowing.  If we did saplings would soon take over and in a few years our fields would be young forests.  I’ve never hayed aggressively, always limiting myself to one cutting.  Two or more cuttings a year, without returning anything to the soil, guarantees rapid soil depletion and a lot of money spent on fertilizer (or, for those who are able, a lot of time spreading manure). But even though I’d only hay a field once a year, on fields that were not used for hay I’ve usually bushhogged twice, in the Spring and in the fall.  On fields used for hay I’d only bushhog in the fall.

This year I’m only going to bushhog once. I’ve come to realize that I’ve been doing all that bushhogging primarily for looks.  Neatly clipped fields may look better than overgrown jungles of grass and weeds.  But those jungles contain wildflowers that attract pollinators, they create habitats for wildlife, they nourish subterranean organisms, and they promote biological diversity.  Driving a tractor over them, pulling a bushhog behind it, compacts the soil, burns a lot of fuel and wears down the equipment, as well as dislocating or killing wildlife and reducing the food available to bees.  And with the fields mowed, many of the insects that might otherwise feed there end up in our gardens instead.

So despite how they might look, this year the fields are going to grow. Those that I mow in the Spring won’t get mowed in the fall.  And vice versa.  I’m sorry it took me so long to figure this out.

I usually wait until November to do fall bushhogging, to eliminate the risk that I might have to do it again. By that time of year the grass has gone to seed and mowing it kicks out tons (literally) of seed that can quickly clog a radiator and overheat a tractor. This year, because I didn’t stop and clean the radiator screen as often as I should have, my tractor overheated and I haven’t been able to get it to run right since then.  I’m still hoping to find a simple fix, but I’m starting to fear the worst.  I may have learned yet another expensive lesson.

In any event, I’m looking forward to 2014, with no haymaking and less bushhogging.  And I’m going to learn to see those overgrown fields as the beautiful wonders that they are.

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10 comments on “Haymaking and Bushhogging

  1. DM says:

    Love hearing the thinking process behind your decision! I had the same learning curve 2 summers ago raising free range heritage breed roosters, supplementing their diet with organic feed…never again :-) A. those old breeds take 3 times as long to even think about reaching butchering weight…18 weeks and they were still just 3 to 5 pounds dressed weight. (they were burning off their calories running around free ranging, plus those breeds are SLOW growing) B. Organic feed is more than double the cost of non organic feed ..by the time we did butcher, I had close to $15 a piece in a bird , just to break even.. C. the meat was so lean and tough, they were not that tasty. I had to ask myself (again) why am I doing this?

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    • Bill says:

      Lessons learned. I learn from my mistakes, so I’ve learned a lot.
      We don’t raise “broilers.” I don’t want to raise Cornish Cross, and raising a more natural bird, as you learned, is expensive and not what customers have come to expect. Interesting to read about your experience. It confirms my own thinking on it.

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  2. beeholdn says:

    So interesting! Thank-you, Bill for your informative and thoughtful posts and comments. Best wishes for 2014!

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  3. There seems to be a trend “out there” among the pastured beef people anyway, in which it’s been determined that buying in hay brings nutrients onto the farm (as you mentioned), and actually works out as a savings over making your own hay – they factor in time, machinery, fuel, maintenance, etc. And it’s probably true. Of course, they are also utilizing their pasture most of the year for grazing, and only feeding hay for a few months at most. I believe Gabe Brown is one advocate of this, also Greg Judy.

    My own hay is custom cut – the guy down the road cuts and bales for me. I’m at his mercy with regard to timing, which is the biggest downside to this way of handling things, but with only 12 acres to cut, it’s not practical to own the equipment myself. This might be a solution for you, and would save bush hogging except around the edges.

    I have wondered in idle moments about the ethics of the big pastured beef guys bringing in truckloads of hay from somewhere else…it somehow seems contradictory, since someone somewhere has to grow hundreds of acres of grass to make hay to sell to these people – just another monocrop in fact. I do get that the climate conditions are better in some places for making hay (the PNW is most definitely not the best place for good hay making weather), but still.

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    • Bill says:

      You’re right. Part of the philosophy is also to minimize hay use and strive for year-round grazing. That means good pasture management. Greg Judy, as you likely know, pioneered the managed intensive grazing method. We’d like to go to that but right now we don’t have the infrastructure. We capped our herd last year and now are aiming to start reducing it, to lessen the strain on the pastures. The cost of keeping up the machinery definitely factored into my decision. We’ve never had any issues, but as soon as the baler or mower breaks down (and they inevitably will) I’m sure to spend the cost of a season of hay at least to get them fixed. I don’t like being dependent upon others for something we can grow here, but I do like the idea of bringing nutrients onto the farm. I think you’d enjoy Forrest Pritchard’s book. He’s a good writer and it’s laugh out loud funny at times.

      I considered keeping the equipment and getting our hay by cutting it on other people’s farm, on halves. Most farmers don’t have square balers any more so there would be demand. But for now I’m leaning toward minimizing our use of hay and getting what we need from local farms.

      You’re right that no one who stops making hay should congratulate themselves on being more environmentally sustainable if they’re still using a lot of hay and just getting it from some industrial farm. Sustainable pasture management is the key I think. We’re still working on how best to manage ours.

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      • I read Forrest Pritchard’s book in November, and enjoyed it for the good read, but found it lacking in nitty gritty “how to” stuff. I hear you about the sustainable pasture management. We have set goals to begin pasturing sheep, but have yet to invest in the fencing needed to do so. I love the small square bales – they are so much more manageable for me in terms of weight and storage, and make more sense when one only has a few animals. But bigger is better of course…

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      • Bill says:

        I agree the book was short on practical advice, although his reasoning on hay equipment and which farmers markets to attend were relevant to us. We’ve been thinking of adding sheep here. Still not sure if we want to do that or not.

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  4. shoreacres says:

    I can’t quite remember everything I’ve learned about Nash Prairie, that piece of untouched land down the road from me, but there are some things in your post that rang a bell.

    For generations, Nash was called “the hay meadow”. Even though it’s never been plowed, it has been cut on a regular and rotating schedule. Along the meanders and where it hasn’t been cut as regularly, the ashe juniper and other trees are making a run at a comeback. They’re working very hard to reestablish the grasses and get rid of the trees, and proper cutting schedules play into that.

    Another thing that amazed me was what any disturbance to the land will do. There’s one road into the prairie, for bringing in machinery. It’s only a one-lane, barely-there road, but even that little disturbance is enough to let Johnson grass and other invasives get a foothold.

    It’s been a fabulous year for hay here. Over Christmas, I was in an area that was depending on hay from elsewhere two years ago, during the drought. Now? My gosh! There’s hay all over the place.
    It’s a good thing. We’re moving into a dry cycle again.

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    • Bill says:

      Here it was a good year for growing hay, but a devil of a year for actually getting it cut and baled. I lost a lot of good hay to rain (which just means the cut hay ended up returning to the soil where it probably should’ve stayed in the first place) and worried that what I did bale was too wet when I put it in the loft. But we ended up with plenty and our barn didn’t burn down, so it was a successful year despite all the setbacks.

      The only downside I see to our plan is that if we have a bad year for hay, it becomes very expensive and difficult to find. The plan is to keep extra on hand to cover us in such a year.

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