Hay There!

Our hay is in the barn.

To the urban majority, that statement may seem as mundane as, let’s say, “I bought groceries today” or “I did a load of laundry.”

But farmers and ranchers who depend on that hay to feed and nourish their beloved animals for an entire year get it.  Plus, this was no ordinary hay crop.  Let me put this year’s hay into perspective for you:  Imagine that you have secretly hoped for a particular birthday gift, but realistically do not expect it, because it’s just asking too much.  Then, when you open the present, there it is!

This year’s hay crop was like that.

Believe me, it isn’t always this good.  We’ve had years when we got plenty of hay, but the quality was poor – too tough and stemmy, or too seedy, and the horses find it unpalatable.  Then we’ve had years with great quality hay – sweet, leafy and the horses love it – but there just isn’t enough of it.

Last year’s crop was like that.  We knew when we stored our bales in the barn last summer that we ran the risk of running short come spring, so we budgeted our daily feeding through the winter very carefully.  But we never expected the cold, snowy winter we got in 2018/19!

By early spring, 2019, given the rate of consumption, we knew we would run out of bales before the pasture grass was edible.  We tried purchasing bales from area farmers, but they were running short just like we were.  So, to stretch out the hay we had, I cut back on my horses’ daily allotment, and began supplementing with a mixture of hay pellets, corn and oats that I purchased from Orscheln.  It was expensive, but what other choice did I have?  By the time I finally turned my horses out to pasture in late spring, I had one bale left.

The one positive effect of the heavy winter snow and spring rains was that they produced what we knew would be a record-setting hay crop this summer – if we could just get it off the field at the right time.

We need three days to get our hay crop off the field and into the barn: one day to swath it, one day to rake it, and one day to bale it and haul it.  That may sound like no big deal, but finding three consecutive days in Kansas with low probability of precipitation at the same time that the bromegrass is at peak nutritional value and that don’t interfere with wheat harvest, is no easy task.

I began intently listening to the weather radio two weeks before we cut the hay.  Several times I thought I found a 3-day window only to have rain chances increase to 40% or more as the days approached.  Too risky, we agreed.  Even a light shower increases the odds of moldy hay, and decreases the nutritional value because of added drying time.

Meanwhile, the local farmer who agreed to do our swathing and baling was on stand-by, along with some fit, young men who could easily toss a 60-pound bale.  They all waited for our call.

Finally, we found our window!  Three dry, sunny days with only a 20% chance of overnight rain while the hay was at peak quality.  And the local wheat was still too green to cut.  Bingo!

As it turned out, it didn’t rain and the bales were perfect.  However, on the evening we were to haul our pristine bales off the field, two of our strong, young men became unavailable!  We scrambled, and found one replacement.  It would have to be enough.  Our team of five would now have to do the work of six.  Overnight rain chances had increased again, and the hauling could not be postponed.

We knew that our replacement had already put in a long day of hard, physical labor, but he agreed to help us that evening anyway.  It’s what we do.  We help our neighbors in need even when it’s inconvenient.

Luckily, the weather that evening was cool and mild, saving the workers from the exhaustion that accompanies triple-digit temperatures or 40-mile-per-hour wind gusts.  Just one more blessing for which to be grateful.

Farm events like this can be compared to an Amish barn-raising.  Yes, there’s hard work, but there’s also a social aspect and shared pride in a job well-done.  After the bales had been neatly stacked in our barn, we all sat around eating pizza, drinking pop, and sharing jokes and fish stories.

My favorite after-bale-hauling memory occurred four or five years ago.  It had been a very hot day, so we started later than usual to allow the temperatures to cool a bit.  It was almost dark by the time we finished.  We all sat on the concrete driveway pad outside the barn, drinking our pop and beer and waiting for the pizza to arrive.

The overhead barn light was attracting all sorts of flying bugs.  A toad hopped out of my garden onto the driveway next to us.  Randy grabbed a buzzing June bug with his hand and asked me, “Have you ever fed a toad?” 

“No, never,” I replied.

For the record, I hate June bugs.  They are noisy, nasty things that swarm around your head, land in your hair, cling to your clothes, and fly down your shirt.  “Watch this,” Randy said as he tossed the June bug towards the fat, motionless toad.

I watched the arc of the tossed June bug as it approached the toad, and then…it was gone!  Just…gone!  It all happened so fast that I never even saw the toad move!

I think it was in that instant when I fell in love with toads.

“Let me try!” I said as I grabbed one of the disgusting June bugs.  Every tired, sweaty bale hauler that evening was completely and happily entertained the entire time until the pizza arrived.

This year, the weather forecasters had been right about the rain.  That night, hours after our bales had been safely stored in the barn, it rained.  But Danny and I slept so soundly that we never even heard it.

Because our hay is in the barn.

(I first learned to drive at age eleven while hauling bales for my dad.  Read about it in the June chapter of my second book, Another Year on the Family Farm.)

Next week:  It’s About Preservation

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