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

It’s Springtime on the Farm!

It’s Springtime on the Farm!

For many people, the sight of a robin is the first sign of spring.  But for me, the first sign of spring is a bucketful of Zip’s hair.

Zip is one of my three horses.  Over the past eleven years, I have discovered that Zip can predict the severity and duration of winter better than any groundhog ever could.  This year, Zip developed the coat of a polar bear.  Unfortunately, the predictive capability of his outer covering was, once again, spot on.  We had one of the coldest, bitterest, snowiest winters that I can remember in a long time. The photo of Zip’s frosty ears is proof positive that his fur coat was not for naught.


So now, with the lengthening of days and the onslaught of southerly breezes, Zip has decided he no longer needs his protective coat.  I first noticed that he was beginning to shed when I saw him rubbing his neck along the edge of the horse feeder.  Shedding makes him itchy and miserable.  So, I sighed, got the horse comb – and a bucket.  It’s not my first rodeo with Zip.

The first day I filled the bucket twice, smushing down the hair each time.  The second day – two buckets full again.  I am now down to about half a bucket per day, but then I fill the bucket the rest of the way with hair from my other two horses.  They never get the furry coat that Zip does, but they also don’t tolerate the winter the way Zip does.

The horses love being groomed in the spring.  It’s like a horsey massage.  Their eyes half close while their lower lip relaxes and their heads drop.  They will actually nudge and push each other out of the way to get closer to me and my grooming tools.  (“It’s my turn!” “No! You went first last time!”)

Then its my dogs’ turn.  They are Labs.  You know, from Labrador.  Way up North.  They love the snow – frolicking in it, licking it, rolling in it.  They start panting when the thermometer climbs to the low 70s.  The next bucket is filled with their undercoat.

I, on the other hand, am a human.  My protective winter coat has a zipper.  And I am absolutely thrilled when I can, once again, shed it.  This past winter, there were days when it literally took me five minutes to put on all the outer clothing needed to do my chores.  Dressed in my indoor pants, long-sleeved T-shirt and wool socks, I then added: bib overalls, sweatshirt, wool hat, neck and face scarf, coat with attached hood, glove liners, fur-lined boots, and finally outer gloves.  And then I had to pee.  Just kidding.  That’s a rookie mistake.

There are other signs of spring as well.  My tulips, hyacinths, daffodils and peonies are all sending up shoots.  Early spring grasses and weeds are turning green.  The cottonwood and native creek elm trees are all budding.  Water fowl are migrating.  The dry, cold winter air is gone and the morning air, while still chilly, now has a dampness to it.  And the sunrise is once again visible from our bedroom window.

I like to tell people that, although we didn’t know it at the time, when we built our farmhouse ten years ago, we built our own personal Stonehenge.  Our bedroom window juts out to the north of our garage, and our kitchen window juts out on the south.  As it turns out, on the spring equinox, we catch our first glimpse of the sunrise through our bedroom window as the sun shifts to the north.  Then, on the autumn equinox, we catch our first glimpse of the sunrise through our kitchen window as the sun shifts to the south.  The position of our house was determined for other reasons, but this side benefit has turned out to be my favorite.

Yesterday, I planted my beet seeds.  Beets are an early spring crop, and resistant to light frost.  I will plant other garden seeds later, when all threat of frost is past, but beets are always my first and favorite.  I still have a few jars of canned beets from last year’s crop, but by the time my new crop is ready to harvest, I’m sure they will be eaten.

Yesterday, I also hosed down our garage floor.  There are sooooo many benefits to country living, but I would be lying if I said there were no disadvantages as well.  First, and foremost, is unpaved country roads.  Most of the county roads around our farm are sand roads.  A few in our county are chalk or fine rock, and some of the really poor roads are just plain dirt.  The level of maintenance is dependent upon the level of traffic use and number of homes nearby.  This past winter, it was impossible to keep the roads in good condition.  I would have been unable to travel the roads at all, had I not had a 4-wheel drive vehicle.  Snow melted, then turned to slush, mixed with sand and mud, then froze again.  Then we got more snow, then more slush, then more mud, ad nauseum.  Frozen chunks of this mixture clung to wheel wells, then melted and dropped to the garage floor overnight.  Yesterday I cleaned out three-months-worth of county road debris from our garage floor.

Every new season brings a new list of farm chores with it, and I love it.  Just when I get tired of tending my garden, it’s time to harvest.  Just when I get tired of mowing, we get our first freeze.  Just when I get tired of the snow, Zip starts shedding.

(One of my most memorable springtime stories from my childhood is about a calf named Cinnamon.  It begins in March and finishes in October of my first book A Year on the Family Farm.)


Next week:  What is that smell?!