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Understanding Agriculture – Growing Hay

A few years ago, I ran a series of articles on understanding agriculture, designed for anyone in the general public who had an interest in understanding more about various agricultural crops and livestock. After receiving a few requests to revisit that project, I’m updating and redelivering that content for you today.

In Whitley County, as in most of northern Indiana, the predominant crops we grow include corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, with hay as our topic today.

Hay is visually different than straw (the mature stems of wheat or oats) because hay retains its green plant color. Straw is never green, and the characteristic light yellowish color led to the term “straw-colored.”

Hay is used to feed livestock, and it is especially important in winter months when pastures are not growing and not available for grazing.

Hay is a dried and (usually) baled forage crop. Bales may be the small rectangular bales (sometimes referred to as small “square” bales), large rectangular bales, or round bales. Dried hay can also be blown into a barn loosely, then fed to livestock by using a pitchfork, but it’s not a practice used much anymore. (I’m old enough to remember doing this on our home farm).

Forage crops include a number of plant types, including legumes and grasses. Like soybeans, forage legumes can fix atmospheric nitrogen through nodules on the roots, and supply that nutrient to the plant. Examples of forage legumes include alfalfa, clover, and birdsfoot trefoil. Curiously, soybeans were originally grown in this country as a forage crop, not for the beans! Examples of forage grasses include orchardgrass, timothy, smooth bromegrass and tall fescue.

Farmers may elect to have pure stands of a single forage species or a mix of forage legumes and grasses. The species or mix of species grown is usually tailored to the type of livestock the hay will be fed to. Some horse owners prefer pure grass hay, while cattle growers may prefer a mix predominated by legumes.

Forages may also be ensiled, where the plants are chopped up or baled and stored before drying, allowing fermentation to take place. The result is a highly nutritious feed for livestock. Many cattle farmers make corn silage, a highly nutritious feedstuff made by chopping up the whole corn plant and ensiling. Forage crops used to make hay, many times, are ensiled in air-tight plastic bags that look like large marshmallows on the edges of fields. This product is also called haylage.

To make hay, a farmer must cut off these forage crops and allow them to air dry in the field. The plants are then raked into what is called a “windrow” before they are picked up, compressed and tied into a bale by a baler. The frustrating thing farmers face when making hay is weather uncertainty. If it rains while plants are drying in the field prior to baling, farmers must wait longer for the plants to dry out again prior to baling. Nutrient losses usually occur with rains, lowering the quality of the hay. Farmers have an expression regarding the importance of baling hay when it is ready (and avoiding possible future rain events): “Make hay while the sun shines.”

Newly mown hay has a distinctly fresh scent. The song, “Back Home Again in Indiana,” is sung prior to the Indianapolis 500 each year, accompanied by the Purdue All-American Marching Band. It features the lyric, “The new-mown hay sends all its fragrance, from the fields I used to roam…”

Hay must be dry when baled, then stored in a barn. Some round bales may be wrapped in plastic and stored outside. If hay is too wet when baled, then stored in a barn, there is a danger of fire through spontaneous combustion. On my home farm, we lost a barn in a fire that began in hay that was stored a little too wet, and finally ignited.

According to the most recent statistics available, Whitley County harvested 4200 acres of alfalfa in 2018, with an average yield of 3.15 tons per acre, and a total production of 13,300 tons. In 2018, Whitley County ranked 8th among Indiana counties in alfalfa hay production.

USDA separates their data collection into alfalfa hay, and “other hay.” Other hay may include other legumes and/or grasses. In 2018, Whitley County harvested 1300 acres of other hay, at an average yield of 2.60 tons per acre, for a total production of 3400 tons. In 2018, Whitley County ranked 30th among Indiana counties in other hay production.

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