My personal favorite time of year is here again. I love the chilly mornings and clear, sunny afternoons that mean fall is in full swing. It also signals that we’re getting very near to the end of our farming season. We’re still finishing up our last few items, namely, final batch of chickens go into butcher this week, turkeys still have another month to go, beef will be taken to butcher regularly until the end of year, and if you’ve been past the store lately you’ll also notice a new fencing project as we continue to upgrade our infrastructure.
One of our last items for the year is finishing up our final hay cutting. We take our first hay as soon as it’s dry enough in May, and our final cutting is in Sept/Oct. We’ll usually get three different harvests from the hay fields each year. Baling good quality hay is as much an art as it is a science. Grass needs to be mowed at a particular stage in growth to maximize nutritional value; if it’s too early you will get a low yield, and if it’s too late you will get very poor quality.
We feed our own hay, which means that we’re kept pretty busy through the summer getting in enough to last us all winter. We have about 200 acres in hay, which is about how much acreage we have in grazing pasture as well. We’ll put up about 700 large square bales, which is about how much we need to keep our 150 Belted Galloways fed. This comes out to about 315 tons of hay to be fed through the winter. You can see why hay is our largest overhead cost! Feeding hay in the winter months is a definite downside to farming in the Midwest, but winter gives time for the soil to rest and rejuvenate so there are benefits to it as well.
I’m learning that not all hay is the same. In the past I think we had overlooked hay quality somewhat, but now I’m starting to understand how much of a difference it can make. It’s important to feed our steers the highest quality and most nutritional hay so they can continue to finish through the winter instead of holding their weight steady. In the grass-fed business, every opportunity to get that animal finished counts! All of our hay fields had previously been seeded in a straight grass seed mix, which makes great hay but not a very complete nutritional meal. This spring I overseeded red clover into the hay fields to add in a legume. Legumes are important to have in your hay because it adds much-needed energy for the animal. Legumes in the field also work as a green fertilizer and add nitrogen to the soil; it ends up being a great symbiotic relationship! We’ll have better hay and better soil at the same time.
I know that hay is not the most interesting topic in the world, but it would be impossible for us to survive without it so it’s very important to us here at Alden Hills! I am always a little more amazed as I continually see how everything at the farm is so connected and dependent on each other.