Anyone Have a Break for Sale? (UPDATED)

We’re wondering if anyone out there has a break for sale. Because, when it comes to bringing in this year’s first cutting of hay, we haven’t even been able to buy a break.

You’ve no doubt read or heard stories about the sopping wet weather that has inundated much of the country’s grain belt this year. Many of the commercial corn-and-soybean farmers were very late getting into their fields to plant, if they managed to plant at all, because the ground had been so wet.

We’ve had many of the same problems here in Michigan, with an unusually wet Spring, but not with the same degree of impact as on the prairie; I think that’s in part due to the smaller amount of row crop farming that is done here. Some people here do grow corn and soybeans commercially, but it’s not the kind of wall-to-wall immersion that we saw in Illinois.

The much bigger problem for us, and for others nearby, has been harvesting hay. We’ve lived here since late 2007, so our first hay harvest was in the spring of 2008. This makes the 12th year we’ve been bringing in hay from our five-acre field, all assisted by the same local farmer who has the necessary specialized equipment. Most years, the first cutting is getting ready to harvest by the end of May, and we’ve managed to bring it in by mid-to-late June (depending on our farmer friend’s availability). This has set us up well for a second or third cutting most years.

Not this year. Bringing in hay requires a certain window of dry weather. You have to cut it, allow it to dry in the field, and then rake / flip it until it dries completely. If you’re lucky enough to get dry, hot weather (especially with a stiff wind), it can be ready to bale after as little as a couple of days. But we haven’t had anything like that this spring. There was one brief window in mid June, with perfect haying weather, but we only saw a handful of farmers actually take advantage of it. Why? The forecast hadn’t initially showed the weather would be so good, and few wanted to chance getting the hay rained on.

Rain is indeed the big worry. If the hay gets soaked while it’s lying on the ground, all the previous drying is of course lost. You can hope for another string of warm weather, but there’s a limit to the number of times you can flip the hay. Eventually, the structure of the grass becomes unstable and it crumbles into an unbaleable mess. And if it keeps raining, so it stays wet long enough? It’ll start to rot, or mold.

After putting it off and putting it off, and not being sure which weather forecasts we could trust, and whether any of the forecast “scattered thundershowers” would actually hit us, we and our farmer friend decided to roll the dice and cut hay on Tuesday of this past week (July 2nd). That very evening, after a beautiful sunny day, one of those thunderstorms scattered its way straight into our hay field.

Our farmer friend has been doing his best to get back over here and flip / rake the hay, but the rain has just kept coming. Thursday morning the weather was really nice, and gave all indications of being a perfect day; we hung two loads of laundry out to dry, and the nine-year-old and I enjoyed cruising to a car show in my classic Fiat with the top down. Then, Thursday afternoon, while we were visiting family a half-hour away, a thunderstorm dumped two and a half inches on our property. There’d been no rain at all where we’d been, so coming home and finding everything absolutely soaked was a very nasty surprise.

We’d initially hoped to bale on Friday, but that was now of course impossible. Our farmer friend came over to rake / flip the hay, to start drying after its Fourth of July soaking. Then, not thirty minutes later, this was the scene:


You can see the hay field in the background, on the other side of the animal enclosure near the barn. Looks like a partly-cloudy day, right? It was indeed, when he began running his tractor. Actually pretty sunny. But look closer. See the stream of water gushing from the barn’s downspout? That’s how hard it had begun raining right over our property. A concentrated rain cloud had come out of nowhere, and had begun dumping on us. As I snapped this picture, our farmer friend was hightailing it out of the field. Adding insult to injury, he later discovered that one of the wheels on his rake was busted.

The weather on Saturday was largely cloudy and humid (not great conditions for getting hay to dry), but at least it didn’t rain. Same on Sunday. When we got back from visiting family on Sunday, our friend’s rake was parked in our front yard, looking repaired and ready to hit the field again.

But, at this point, who knows how good that hay is going to be. It’s been sitting in the field for nearly a week. It’s been rained on (and soaked) multiple times. I suppose we’ll know more later today, when he gets out there and works with it. My big concern is that it sat wet for too long, and is getting rotten or molding.

At least from here on out, the weather is supposed to be pretty good. Here’s hoping that the harvest can still be salvaged!

*****UPDATE (8:10 PM)

It wasn’t the best-quality hay we’ve ever had, and quite a few more bales than usual were so wet that they needed to be put aside for additional drying, but we did manage to get everything into the barn this afternoon. Soon after I put up the original post, our farmer friend stopped by with his equipment. He raked the hay into final windrows, and then around 1:30 or so began baling. One of the Yeoman Farm Children rode on the hay wagon and stacked bales, and another YFC helped me unload each wagon in the barn. I’m a bit fuzzy on the exact number of bales we got, but it’s solidly north of 400.

Given that hay is currently fetching $10 per bale at the local auction, I feel a lot better about how sore and exhausted I feel right now. No, we’re not going to sell any of our harvest (even at $10 per bale), tempting though it may be at that price. What I’m feeling good about is NOT HAVING TO SPEND $10 per bale to feed our sheep and goats this coming winter. Yes, that price will probably decline in coming weeks, as more farmers manage to bring in their hay. But, still … given how screwy the weather has been, I bet the price remains significantly higher than in past years.

Over and out for tonight. Time to join the rest of the family for our evening rosary. We’ll be offering it up in thanksgiving for this wonderful harvest.

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

The longer we live on the farm, the more we learn the truth of certain expressions and cliches. In this case: you really do have to make hay while the sun shines. If the stuff gets rained on after it’s been mowed and allowed to dry in the field, you’re at serious risk of losing the whole cutting. You may be able to flip it over and let it dry again, but if you rake it too many times it may begin to crumble. And if the rainy weather continues for too long, the whole thing could rot in the field.

It’s really remarkable just how many people have been bringing in hay around here the last couple of weeks. The weather has been nearly perfect for it, and we’ve seen one field after another get cut, raked, baled, and hauled. On our long bicycle rides on quiet country roads, my daughter and I have had front row seats to the action. And I must say: there are few aromas as wonderful as that of freshly-cut alfalfa, drying in a field.

Our hay field is only about four and a half acres. When we have a year of good harvests, it supplies enough for our sheep and goats to make it through the winter. When the harvests haven’t been so great, we’ve had to buy some additional hay from others. And sometimes, we’ve bought some additional hay just for our own peace of mind; you really can’t have too much of it, and the worst time to fall short is in the dead of winter.

The best time to make a purchase is immediately after harvest, when loaded hay wagons are coming out of the fields. The farmer can then deliver it straight to your own barn, without having to unload it into his own barn (and then load it back up again at some later date). And the best way to learn of farmers who have some extra hay they’d like to sell straight off the wagon? Word of mouth. Put the word out that you’re looking for a hundred bales, and you’ll learn of someone who’d be happy to supply it.

Fortunately, it looks like we won’t be having to make any purchases this year. Our field was overdue for fertilizer, which we finally got applied this spring. Our local grain elevator / feed store contracts with a laboratory to test soil, so we submitted a sample from our hay field (drawn from many small test holes dug all over it). The report came back with recommendations, which we were of course able to buy from the same local grain elevator. We had a local farmer apply those tons of fertilizer using a spreader pulled behind his tractor.

That same farmer is the person we’ve hired to do our hay since we moved here. For an operation as small as ours, it hasn’t made sense to buy our own tractor and haying equipment — not to mention the time and practice it would take to learn how to use that equipment properly. It’s a classic example of the value of the division of labor. It makes much more sense for us to hire someone who’s already invested in that equipment, and who has years of experience providing this service for other small farmers in the area.

Back to the fertilizer: it really did its job. We got an explosion of growth, and the grass was thick on the ground after our guy cut it late last week. He returned to rake and flip it, and with the hot weather it didn’t take long to dry.

But what about the final piece of the puzzle? We still needed to get the hay baled and brought into the barn. Neither he nor we like to do work of any kind on Sundays, but this time it didn’t look like we had much of a choice. He had another field that absolutely had to be baled on Monday. I had a commitment for work, with a hard deadline, on Tuesday (today). That left Wednesday — but the forecast was calling for rain before then.

Sunday it would have to be. He came by very early in the morning, before church, to rake the hay one more time. Then, in mid-afternoon, he returned with everything needed to bale it. He and an assistant drove the tractor and piled bales on the hay wagon, then towed it into the upstairs portion of our barn. While the three oldest Yeoman Farm Children and I stacked all those bales, he and his assistant returned to the field to begin loading another wagon. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Hay harvest

Bringing in hay is among the toughest jobs on a farm. The bales are heavy and scratchy, usually have to be hefted high into place for storage (note the stack in the photo above reaches higher than the basketball hoop), and almost by definition this all has to be done while it’s really hot outside. When we finally got the last of the 330 bales put up, just ahead of the sun sinking into the horizon, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief and satisfaction. It’s one of the most thorough and gratifying feelings of exhaustion a person can experience. And, of course, there’s nothing quite as nice as going out the next morning and looking out on a perfectly clean field, illuminated by the rising sun, and remembering that it’s all finished. At least until the next cutting, later this summer.

Clean field

As much as I dislike having to do this kind of hard work on Sundays, I suppose the experience did bring one benefit: it helped me appreciate the degree to which Sunday has become a true “day of rest” for us to enjoy with family. The first several years we were married, we didn’t really treat Sunday much differently than Saturday (other than going to church). Then, after a time of reading and discernment, we realized that we needed to make a radical change. Due much to the initiative of Mrs. Yeoman Farmer, we “took back” Sunday for the family. Unless there were some truly urgent necessity, there would be no shopping. No professional work for my clients. No garden work. No butchering animals. No other hard work around the farm. It has been incredibly liberating, and brought tremendous good for our family. Having to disrupt that routine this weekend, to bring the hay in while the sun was shining, reminded me what a treasure the rest of our Sundays are.