The growing season is wrapping up for much of the U.S., which makes this the best time to plan for next year’s forage. Hay costs are high, and look like they are going to stay that way. If you’ve thought about making your own hay on your property or properties nearby, there is more than meets the checkbook that needs to be considered.
The two biggest challenges to making your own hay are having the necessary equipment and finding enough labor, according to Marvin Hall, Ph.D., professor of forage management at Penn State University. Hay-making equipment—even used equipment—is expensive enough that if you’re going to purchase it, you want to be sure you’re in this venture for the long haul.
For the most basic hay-making setup, here’s what you need:
Tractor: You probably have one of these already, but does it have the horsepower to handle hay-making implements? In general, implements come in different sizes with different horsepower requirements, so be sure those you select are a match. Your owner’s manual can help explain the requirements.
Mower/conditioner: You’ll need either a sickle-bar mower or a disc mower, depending on the type of forage you’re growing. The conditioner crimps or rolls the cut forage and leaves it in wide swaths to speed up the drying time in the field. Used units start around $500.
Rake/tedder: The tedder “fluffs” the cut forage to further speed the drying process. When ready for baling, the forage is raked into windrows so your baler can scoop it up and pack it into bales. Used rake/tedders will cost $500 and up.
Baler: You can make large or small round or square bales, depending on your needs. Used balers go for $750 and more.
Wagon: Once you cut the hay, you have to be able to move it out of the field. Used wagons run $1,000 and higher. (If you’re handy, you can make a wagon using the axle base from an old truck.)
These are the bare essentials, according to Hall, and you still need to take into account the cost and skill required to maintain and repair the equipment, plus the space to store it.
Running all of this equipment and getting the hay put up requires all hands on deck—a minimum of four to do the job efficiently. One person can drive the tractor for mowing, raking and baling, but taking the hay out of the field is where the labor comes in. You’ll want one person driving the tractor with the wagon attached, one person on the wagon to stack the hay, and two people taking bales out of the field and handing them to the stacker. “The farmers I deal with are having a hard time finding labor that wants to do that kind of work,” Hall says.
Of course, he points out, “you can get around the labor if you spend more money.” Bale retrievers, which pick up and move hay, start at $4,000 used.
If only mowing, baling and stacking were all you needed to make quality hay. Instead, you also have to concern yourself with forage selection and soil fertility.
If you’re lucky enough to be starting with a field of established, quality forage, you can begin your hay making right away. If you need to build up the forage in the field, you have to decide what you’d like to feed your horses while taking your environment and soil type into consideration.
“There are some crops that withstand dry conditions better than others,” Hall says. For example, “If you have soil that’s very shallow, you don’t want to plant timothy because it stops producing when it gets dry.”
Likewise, different forages grow in different soil types—clay, sand, silt and combinations of these. Your county extension agent is an excellent resource for learning about the forages that do best in your area.
Just as a balanced diet is vital to your health, proper soil pH and nutrients are vital to forage crops’ health. “You have to maintain fertility of the soil to have optimum quality and optimum production,” says Vanessa Corriher, Ph.D., assistant professor and extension forage specialist at Texas A&M University.
Nutrients and pH are easy enough to measure using a soil test. “Almost all of the state universities have labs that will do soil testing,” Hall says. There are also independent labs that offer the service.
On the form you submit with your soil sample, you note your intentions for the field—for example, four tons of timothy hay per acre—and your results will provide soil-amendment recommendations.
“Most states have county extension agents who are trained in looking at soil, talking to farmers to find out what they want to produce and advising on what needs to be done,” Hall says.
Once your hay is cut, proper storage is key. “If you’re going to invest a lot of money in producing hay, it’s very important to protect the investment,” Corriher says.
When you’re storing all of the hay you produce rather than purchasing it one load at a time, your storage needs multiply. Have a plan in place before you begin baling, or you’ll be stuck with soggy hay. (For more articles on hay storage, check the links at the end of the article.)
Farming It Out
If you have the acreage available but not the desire to get involved in the hay-making routine, custom baling is a reasonable option. Custom agreements can vary, but in general, a custom baler mows, rakes and bales your field, and you take it from there. The downsides to having someone else bale your hay are that you are at the mercy of another farmer’s schedule and you have less control over the quality. Vanessa Corriher, Ph.D., assistant professor and extension forage specialist at Texas A&M University, points out that when it comes to horse-quality hay, “my definition and your definition can be different.”
Prices for these services vary by area and from year to year. Hall says custom baling in Pennsylvania went for about $1.80 per small square bale in 2012. Other per-bale prices found were $1.20 to $1.50 in Illinois, $2.25 in Indiana, and $2.10 in Oklahoma.
Producing hay for your farm is a noble venture, but you need to have realistic expectations. Educate yourself about the right hay-making conditions for your area. Cutting when the forage is mature and when the weather looks like it might allow a window without rain for baling are part luck, part experience. “There is an art and a learning curve to making hay. You shouldn’t expect to say, ‘I’m going to make good hay this year’ and have that just happen,” Hall says.