Views from the Vet: Good hay is produced and stored with care

Our weather has transformed suddenly from rain to heat. As we discussed last month, the endless rains dampened hayfields preventing them from harvest; dampened cornfields, preventing them from growing; and drowned farmers’ spirits. Lately, the sunshine and heat have allowed fields to dry a bit and farmers have finally been able to mow and bale their hay.
When most people think of hay, they visualize the small square bales that have filled the mows of Vermont barns for generations, and many hayfields are still harvested in this manner. Grass in hayfields must be mowed and allowed to dry for a day or two depending on the maturity of the grass and the weather. In order for the hay bales to be stored properly and safely, the grass must be completely dry. If hay is baled too wet, heat produced through fermentation can cause the bales to spontaneously combust. Almost every year in Vermont, a barn is lost to hay combusting during storage.
After the hay is mown and lies in the field for a time, farmers will stir the hay using a “tedder” — an implement with large wire circles with spines extending around the circumference that is pulled behind a tractor. You might have seen a tedder in action — hay is tossed and mixed in order to promote drying. After tedding and more drying the farmer tests the hay to be sure it is dry enough, then it is raked into rows for collection by the baler.
Small hay bales, weighing from 50-90 pounds, are common on horse, sheep and goat farms. Many smaller dairy farms also feed their animals hay using small bales. Larger dairy farms would find it very-time consuming to feed small bales so, like their herds, they have sized up. Large square bales, weighing nearly a half-ton, are more common when feeding dry hay on larger dairy farms. Some Vermont farmers purchase large square bales of alfalfa that is grown on large hay farms in the Midwest and further west,
Hay in Vermont is also commonly harvested in large round bales. Sometimes hay is harvested at a wetter stage and wrapped in plastic wrap to allow it to ferment. These large white marshmallows that dot fields throughout the year are known as “baleage.” The feed inside the white wrappers can remain stable for a long time.
Most grass in our area is mowed, allowed to dry for a short time, then merged into rows and chopped. Large trucks or forage wagons transport the grass from the fields to the barn where the chopped forage is piled high in bunker silos where it is compacted to eliminate oxygen, covered in plastic that keeps air out and allowed to ferment. Grass haylage is still the basis of most dairy diets in Addison county and cows are fed anywhere from 30-50 pounds each day. Farmers are grateful for the sun and warmth — energy that will be translated through harvested grass to milk, wool, meat and work.

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