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Hay You! Should I Make My Hay or Buy It?

By Rich Taber, CCE Chenango

As the haying season winds down across the northeast, I am left to ponder the eternal question; should I keep on trying to make hay for my livestock every year, or buy it? Well, “the devil is in the details”, as the old saying goes. First off, I am going to state unequivocally that there is no correct “yes or no” answer, and your conclusions need to be made for your own specific situation. I will however, present to you some of the challenging requirements needed to successfully make hay, with its concomitantly huge amounts of time, money, cropping needs, and machinery procurement and maintenance.

I am also going to make some assumptions about the readers who would most benefit from this discussion. 1. The very title of this publication “Small Farm Quarterly” implies a smaller agricultural business that does not generate huge cash flows, such as the typical commercial dairy farm we see all over the Northeast. 2. You may be a new or beginning farmer and have decided to get livestock on your farm, and you need to figure out how to provide good quality feed for them. 3. You do not have huge amounts of money in reserve to finance the purchase and maintenance of all kinds of haying equipment. 3. You do have a certain amount of land on your property that does grow hay crops on it, and someone will need to do the haying. 4. You may work off the farm for a significant amount of hours, and may only have limited amounts of time to actually make hay in a timely manner. 5. Perhaps you do have some family help that could be used for the haying process. 6. You have not decided yet whether to make small square bales, or make large round or square bales, or even wrapped baleage. 7. You will rotationally graze your animals for between 5 and 6 months of the year, and the forages that you need to acquire will be for the winter, or non-grazing months, which in many parts of the northeast seems to last eternally, for upwards of seven months out of the year.

So how much hay will you need? An easy thumb rule to follow is that for every 100 pounds of live animal body weight you will need about 3 pounds of dry hay per day. So, a 1200 lb. beef cow will need 36 pounds of dry hay a day; you can extrapolate this figure for all ruminant animals for planning purposes. Then take your grand total, and divide by 2,000 to get the number of tons that you may need. For planning purposes, let’s say that you have a 20 cow beef herd. Each cow weighs about 1200 pounds. Here’s the math: (12 x 3) x (20) x (a 200 day feeding season) /2000 lbs. per ton = 72 tons of hay needed for the winter season.

Typical small square bales weigh about 35-40 pounds each. A typical 4 ft. x 4 ft. dry round bale weighs just less than 700 pounds. A wrapped wet bale of baleage, which contains the same amount of nutrients as the dry round bale, but has a lot more water in it, can weigh 1200 pounds. (Always figure your livestock nutritional needs on a dry basis for calculation purposes).

Diverging from the animal requirements, we will return to the issues of making hay. What equipment do you need to make hay? You will need the following: I will quote prices for good, used machinery, (not consignment auction junk either) as you probably won’t want to purchase new equipment; it can be absurdly expensive! If you can afford to buy new or newer equipment, more power to you! Just be careful about accumulating too much debt.

Various equipment needed to complete the process.

1. At least one good tractor. You will probably need this tractor for a myriad of other purposes on the farm, so the debate over having a tractor is moot, unless you are a draft animal powered farm. Generally, most people that make hay have two or three to handle all of the different operations in haying.

2. An older style mower-conditioner, (commonly called a haybine), or a more recent discbine, to mow the hay with. Haybines take considerably less horsepower to run; you can get by with about 50 horsepower. You need about 80 horsepower to run the typical 10 foot wide discbine. Expect to pay $1500-$15,000 for good used ones.

3. You will need a tedder to ted hay, soon after its mown, to spread it out, and to help it dry. Making dry hay in the northeast can be all but impossible in June, and in a year like this past one, really impossible, where it was dryer earlier on, and then it became quite wet and rainy through August. A good used two row hay tedder can typically cost $1500-2000.

4. A rake to rake your hay: non-negotiable, you have to have one of these. A decent used one can be found for around $1500.

5. A baler to bale the hay. Will you go with small square bales, or large round bales, or even large square bales? Either way, good used balers of any type can be $10,000 more or less. I would recommend that you go with a round baler, as your labor requirements are much less. It never ceased to amaze me, back when I made small square bales as to how few friends I had during haying season, paid or not, that were available to help unload hay wagons. However, on the farm I always seemed to have enormous numbers of friends during deer season. The moral: labor can be an onerous issue in making hay.

6. If you are going to make small square bales, you have to have several decent hay wagons to bale into; these can easily cost $2000 each for good used ones. If you are making round bales, you need a decent wagon to load and haul them on, which can run about $4,000 (and not a rickety flatbed wagon made from an old Model A Ford running gear with bald tires). They’re loads of fun to be barreling down the highway with several tons of hay on it and they blow a tire or the frame falls apart! (So I’ve been told).

7. If you are making large round bales, you will need a tractor with a loader and a spear to handle the bales, and maybe a three-point-hitch one as well. Hopefully said tractor is a 4-wheel drive model, as 2-wheel drive tractors notoriously get stuck in muddy, snowy, mucky conditions, and usually only on Sundays or holidays when you have other plans. Or, you could use a “bale hugger” on your front-end loader if you need to handle wet bales of baleage, so that the plastic does not get ripped. They’re usually around $2000.

8. I almost forgot about the baleage wrapper, to wrap those wet bales in plastic. Anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000.

So, there you have it: and if you do all of the math, you may want to be sitting down from sticker shock if you add up all of the prices needed to procure haying machinery. What are we going to do? Shall we buy all of our hay? Decent quality hay can be purchased for anywhere from $25 a round bale, to upwards of $60 a bale for good quality baleage. Well, buying hay is a good option, but then what do we do with all of our hay land that we have on our properties, and we can’t afford to buy all this machinery?

Oh, the plot thickens, because not only do we need all of this machinery, we need to know how to maintain and repair it? Oh, you don’t like to get greasy and turn wrenches? You can hire a mechanic to come in and repair your machinery, buy they don’t come for free either, typically charging between $50 and $80 an hour for repairs. Your machinery will break down, sooner, or later. Then, you might become like what many of us have become, a collector of multiple pieces of older machinery; two rakes, two balers, etc. When strangers drive by your place and stop and ask if you are a used machinery dealer, you will know that you have arrived at that wonderful, if dubious, point.

Loading hay on the wagon.

Buying hay is a good option. There’s something to be said for having a truck show up in your driveway and you “write a check”, unload the hay, and then you’re done. You won’t be tying up endless hours all during the summer trying to get your haying done. You may even get to go somewhere on a Sunday afternoon!

Oh, the plot thickens again. How much time does it take to make hay? Mow on Monday, and then ted on Tuesday, and maybe rake on Tuesday or Wednesday, and then bale on Wednesday. That is, if it doesn’t rain. If you’re making baleage, you can generally mow on day one and bale the next day. If it rains, and the hay gets wet, you need to go back and ted it out again, and then you are that much further behind and with a lower quality product.

Another nice thing about buying your hay is that that is that much less land that you need to pay a mortgage, insurance, and taxes on, and pay for lime, seed, fertilizer, and the occasional reseeding with all of its incessant tillage needs.

However, the five thousand pound elephant is still in the room; we have land that we want to make hay on, but we don’t want to lose the farm over buying a whole raft of machinery. We work off the farm, and don’t have enough time to make good hay in a timely manner. Perhaps we can hire someone to do our hay for us. OK, that works to a point. Do you think your neighbor dairy farmer wants to stop putting up their own hay that they need, and come over and dither with your little field? Oh, they might have time for you in August rather than in June. Guess how good that hay will be?

Perhaps you can work with some amenable neighbors and you mow your own hay, and ted it and rake it, and hire them to come in and bale it for you. Any number of potential combinations exists. I have included a useful chart that shows what you might expect to pay to hire someone to do the work for you, “2018 Custom Rates and Fees”, prepared by CCE of Franklin County New York.

So, how do I handle my haying needs? We have at any given time fifty or so head of beef cattle and one hundred more head of sheep on our farm. When I say “we” I mean my wife and myself, and that’s it for help. She has two other businesses to run, so I do 99% of all of the haying throughout the year. I do have a fleet of older farm equipment that I make dry hay with throughout the summer months. We have about 50 open acres on our home farm that we do rotational grazing on, and have been doing all that we can to improve our grazing situation and to extend it as far as we can into the late fall. I fortunately have available another 60 acres from several landowners near our home farm that we rent, inexpensively, for some grazing, but mostly make hay on about 50 acres of it.

I grew up with haying, and have been doing it in one form or another for several decades. It is in my blood, and there is no nicer feeling than to be out in a beautiful green field, slowly tedding or raking hay on a sunny day, enjoying the sights and sounds of nature. However, haying “hangs over my head” each and every summer to get it all done. I only make dry hay, and buy left over baleage from dairy farmers for a good price, as I do not own a baleage wrapper. What everyone who is thinking about getting into the hay making business is that you must decide for yourself, will you have enough of a cash flow from the business to justify all of this expense and labor? Would you like to go somewhere on a Sunday afternoon? Think about it, and do what is right for you and your situation. And beware of those who mock those who do make hay, and say everyone should buy all of their hay. If everyone thought this way, then who would make hay?

Rich Taber (M.S./M.S.F.) is an Educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chenango County New York, and also owns a 165 acre farm in Madison County in the Hamilton/Morrisville area where he and his wife Wendy raise beef cattle, sheep, poultry, and enjoy their 105 acre woodlot. He can be reached at 607-334-5841, ext. 21, or  rbt44@cornell.edu.

 

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