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.