Friday, January 6, 2012

The one woman hay saver

I  grew up on a farm, so I have spent most of the winters of my life feeding hay to some  kind of livestock, and watching life in summer revolve around the hay bale circuit.  Deep in my heart I love agriculture, but as a former allergic asthmatic, I have dreamed of days without hay dust.  Since I am built very slight, and married to an exuberant husband who thinks a 70 pound square bale is too light, the advent of round bales into my life felt like freedom gained.  But the time my husband spent in the hayfield baling them, carrying them to the barn and then dispersing the bales in winter left no time for romantic evenings.
By chance I heard some people raving about how a little bit of high tensile electric fence shortened the amount of time they spent in the hayfield and kept them in the house in winter instead of out feeding cows.  I experimented with a paddock project, and really liked watching the grass grow and the cattle spread their manure around to fertilize the grass.  With nitrogen fertilizer at 400 dollars a ton, I was soon hooked on the idea of not fertilizing my hay field and feeding less hay in winter.  My county agent began preaching about how there is $60 worth of fertilizer in a round bale that has been “recycled” by a herd of cows, and since our farm soil type needed a lot of help from the fertilizer buggy, I believed that buying hay and importing organic matter to the acreage was the next step we needed to take.  Hey, it put fertilizer money back in my pocket and kept my dearly beloved out of the hayfield, a win/win situation.
Since the DB was in Afghanistan at the time and could not bale the hay anyway, and we were experiencing the worst drought of the decade, finding someone to buy hay from and not paying dearly for it were my first concern.  The funding for the hay came out of my own personal “butter and egg” money and I wanted to get the most feed value out of each bale.  It took some Arkansas ingenuity to make the most of these expensive store bought bales, especially with 3 species of livestock to consider, but I was determined to make the animals eat the hay, waste as little as possible and to spread the fertilizer value of those bales far and wide.  Because I have Scotch/Irish background, I abhor waste, and also learned not to buy a pig in a poke.
Which led to me to first address hay quality.  If I was going to shell out my hard earned dollars I wanted hay that would be nutritious and delicious.  I resolved to get a hay analysis before I bought hay.  This added difficulty because by the time I got the hay sampled and the analysis back, the hay was all sold out. But I finally managed to find some decent TDN 5 X 6 bales at a reasonable price.  Since this size bale has almost twice as much hay as a 4 X 5 bale, I felt like I had made a fairly good purchase, but the large bale size meant that there was more opportunity for hay to be wasted if not fed in a proper manner.   I was used to unrolling a 4x5 for 25 cows, but since the drought I  was down to  10 cows and the bales were so much bigger I could not unroll them like I was used to doing, without wasting hay.  I had to use my imagination to figure out how to make these big bales work for a dozen cattle, 11 horses, and 25 goats.
One of the disadvantages of dividing the pastures into small grazing paddocks was that there was a lot more grass available than in previous years.  It appeared to be just enough to keep the cattle from being hungry enough to eat hay without wasting it.  The horses were even more challenging because they always prefer to eat grass down into the ground than eat hay.  I had to learn new habits- just because it was Thanksgiving did not mean that it was time to feed hay.  I began to watch the weather report more closely.  It seemed that by moving one herd (consisting of 11 cattle and 5 horses) to a fresh paddock each week, they were relatively well fed without hay, and I could reserve some paddocks that needed fertilizing for the hay feeding times.  If I knew the weather was going to take a bad turn- rain, cold and wind combined, I could plan ahead and unroll part of a bale in the empty paddock on a nice day, and then when the weather turned bad I could put the cattle in with the hay and hopefully some cedars for protection.  But I still had the problem of the bales being too big.  I only needed about 1/3 of a bale at a time, so what could I do with the rest?  I priced round bale feeders, but they seemed awfully expensive, and those big bales meant a bale would probably last the herd a week or longer, which meant the manure was not getting spread around the farm.
Luckily I had a  football playing son to help me unroll the big bales.  On nice days we would unroll a third of a bale in each of 2 paddocks with nice tree wind breaks, then take the round small remains to the other 6 horses. These horses were in a smaller pasture near the house so they could be ridden, or because they are trouble makers who like to chase the cattle (MULE). By unrolling this small bale, the horses seemed to waste less because they had equal access instead of one horse hogging the whole bale and running the others off as horses are prone to do when fed in a round bale feeder. During the drought I found this concept to be true with square bales- I could spread flakes of square bale around and everybody got a bite. Since horses REALLY make the manure, this was helping spread their nutrition around too.
The hay rings being so expensive made the mental wheels turn in other directions too.  AS the weather grew colder and tractors became harder to start, the idea of leaving a whole round bale without waste became more attractive.  For 2 years now I had been improvising ways to feed hay to my goats without them wasting it.  Since goats are pretty finicky about their hay quality, and some of mine was Bermuda, they were picking through it to get the fescue, Johnson grass and crabgrass and throwing the Bermuda on the ground.  Waste was enormous, especially when the weather was nice and they weren’t that hungry and just liked to play with the hay.  Early in the season I fed square bales by tying hog panels as mangers between the trusses of an old chicken house we use as goat shelter   The smaller checks in the bottom of the hog panel kept the hay from falling through, and the goats could reach through the larger squares at the top to get hay.  (My goats are all dehorned because of this.)  As the weather cooled off and the goats began lactating, they needed more than a couple of square bales a day.  By wrapping the better quality (according to the goats) round bales with a cattle panel, the goats could reach the hay, not waste it, and I only had to feed about once a week.  Since they were being fed inside, I could haul the manure to the worst pastures in the spring and broadcast it where needed.   Using cattle and hog panels to feed goats  probably saved me several hundred dollars worth of wasted hay. 
Near my home I have a little pasture where I keep a blind cow, my milk goats and 3 old horses.  These big bales presented a challenge here too- to much hay.  I wrapped the bottom of the bale with a hog panel.  This prevented the horses and cow from pulling hay out at the bottom and wasting it, but allowed the goats to stick  their heads through down low and eat.  It has been a great hay saving technique. 
Having a little rest from daily hay feeding has made me a little lazy.  Every day I am looking for opportunities to reduce the number of times I have to get on the tractor, and thinking to myself “I could go visiting at Christmas and the help would not have to use the tractor to feed hay bales.  All I have to do is have someone open an electric gap to let stock into fresh hay.”  So I have taken a small vacation and proclaimed myself ‘the one woman hay saver".

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