02 June 2008

Making Hay

One of the key features of our new property is a 6-acre, established hay field. With a flock of ten breeding sheep, and four goats, we go through a lot of hay each winter. And at $5 per bale (or higher), the total bill can get pretty steep pretty fast.

A local farmer had been renting that field for $275 per year and taking all the hay to sell. Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I were astonished at that deal --- particularly since the rent had not increased in ten years. Given that he was probably reaping in excess of 700 bales per year, he was making a fortune. We introduced ourselves to this farmer, and proposed a new arrangement: we charge no rent, you cut and bale the hay, and we split the hay. His offer? Okay, but he keeps 75% of the hay. That was so laughable, I didn't even respond. A moment later, he hedged a bit and said he could go "no lower" than two-thirds / one-third. I told him we'd think about it, but it didn't take me and MYF long to decide this was a lousy deal.

We began making inquiries, and discovered a nice family that was the friend of one our friends. They do custom haying, and came over to look at our field. We agreed to have them do all the cutting and bailing, and to haul all the hay into our barn, for $2 per bale. Although the field will produce far more hay than our animals can eat in one year, we decided we'd rather not part with any. Rather, given the enormous capacity of our barn, it made sense to stockpile as much as possible. In a drought year, hay could become scarce --- particularly since so many farmers have been plowing their hay fields under so they can plant more corn. (Hay is already fetching upwards of $6-$7 per bale at local auctions.) Besides, in the next year or two, our field will need to be replanted with alfalfa (a planting of alfalfa is good for only 7 years or so, and ours is nearing the end of its run), and our yield might be quite low that year. We figured it would be prudent to have a good stash of hay. Heck, it doesn't spoil as long as it's kept dry.

Ah, yes. Keeping dry. The family came over to cut our hay a week ago. Then they came back a couple of days later to flip it over to continue the drying process. The plan was to bale it on Friday...but as the week progressed, the weather forecast for Friday became increasingly bleak. Thunderstorms were a near-certainty; if the hay got soaked as it lay on the ground, it wouldn't be clear how much could be salvaged. But Thursday was too soon to bale it, so we had to watch the hay as it lay in the field, raked neatly into windrows, and wonder if our animals would ever get to feast on it.

So we prayed. And prayed. And prayed. And got up Friday morning to discover a gray, unsettled-looking sky. So we prayed some more.

The farm family arrived just after lunch, with two strong young local boys in tow. They worked quickly, with one eye on the sky and the other on the field ahead. The tractor and its baler were a fascinating combination to watch: it sucked the hay up, fed it through a device, and nice square bales emerged from a chute. One of the boys would then stack these bales neatly on the hay wagon that was in tow.

They had two hay wagons. Once one wagon was full, they would tow it around to the barn, back it up the slope into the second story, detach the wagon, and go back out in the field with the fresh wagon. As they filled it with more bales, the wife and one of the boys (and, when available, MYF), stacked those bales in the barn. Then the husband would pull up with another load, they'd trade wagons, and keep the cycle going.

We got the final load stacked in the barn just after 7pm. We looked at the counting device on the baler, and found we had harvested 451 bales! Looking at the amount of work and equipment involved, and considering that we now had basically a full year's worth of hay in the barn, the $900 price tag seemed very reasonable. They will be back in 28 days to do the second cutting, and we will get a third cutting later in the summer. Even though second and third cuttings yield fewer bales, we still should get at least 600 more bales this year. Am I ever glad we have such a big barn!

And there's one other big thing to be glad about: the weather held. We didn't get a drop of rain the whole time they were working, despite skies that never got sunny. And then, five minutes after their truck pulled off our property, all those clouds opened up. Rain came down in buckets, soaking everything in sight.

We ran for the house, and raised prayers of thanksgiving --- not only that the hay had remained dry, but for the wonderful rain that will immediately help our field to begin growing again.

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