Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Horse owners pay the price for second-cut hay
FIRST-CUT HAY season has passed. The fields you see being cut now are likely those whose farmers snatched the right moment between spring rain storms for those minimum three dry days needed to cut, dry and bale fresh grasses (“make hay while the sun shines”) way back in late May/early June. Thanks to moist intervening weeks, they are now able to cut again.
The same field usually provides fewer bales in the second cutting than the yield in the first cutting. But horse owners tend to love second-cut hay and lesser yield means higher price, so despite it taking the same amount of work as first cut, it is worth it.
If the haying being done now is the first cut of the season for that field, it is late — as well as less nutritious and less palatable. Although I have never tried eating it, palatability is made loud and clear by whether or not the horses clean up every strand or leave tough stems behind.
Some farmers, especially those who have fields that provide just enough hay for their own animals, hay a little late on purpose, waiting for field-nesting birds like bobolinks and meadowlarks to be done with their nests. Mowers, tedders and balers are not kind to animals in their path. And dead animals in hay bales can lead to contamination of botulism, one of the deadliest organisms on the planet.
Last summer, I retrieved a couple truckloads of hay at the end of the day while the baler was still finishing up a field. Although the cheapest way to buy hay — the farmer never has to handle it — it is very time consuming and not very cost-effective on the purchasing end.
You drive to the field, drive between rows of hay bales and toss them onto the truck, tie them down, drive home with your tippy load hoping you don’t leave any in the ditch, and unload. This is made more efficient if you have three people — someone driving the truck, someone pitching the bales onto the bed, and someone in the bed stacking. But having three people on hand who are willing to deal with hay is not likely since hay is typically made on the hottest summer days when most people are at the beach or in the air conditioning. And with three people, the cost-per-bale increases because the amount of beer you need to purchase goes up at least threefold.
When I got home and was unloading one of these truckloads, I turned a bale over to find a snake wriggling around. He had escaped the deadly parts of the hay-making equipment but was so tightly packed in the bale he couldn’t get out. I popped the bale and let this lucky snake wind its way to freedom somewhere in the vicinity of my barn. Having killed a snake once in my adulthood (it was in my bedroom, after all) I felt a tinge of redemption having done this one a favor.
Hay is far and away the thing I like the best and the thing I like the least about having horses. The least favored parts are that it is expensive to buy and you must be available, and have a large wad of cash, when the farmer cuts. Hay is no longer sold by the ton but by the bale; the bale these days is so inconsistent in size and weight that having a rule of thumb about how much hay to get per horse per year is almost impossible. When I had a horse in my 20s, the figure was around 125 bales per horse per year. These days I average almost twice that, and the bales cost four or five times more!
But making your own hay fields is an expensive proposition in a state that is 80 percent forested. Once completely the opposite in the 19th century when the sheep industry was thriving and most of New Hampshire was open field dotted with “field maggots” (as a friend from Montana calls them), to create a field from a forest is an act of determination. And it doesn’t take many years of leaving a field fallow to end up with a forest again.
Many horse owners like myself have a patch of grass that isn’t good enough or big enough for haying but is at least enough for some spring-to-fall sparse grazing that keeps the horses doing something akin to a natural activity. Some people do all sorts of complicated rotation so the grass isn’t eaten down to nubs, but there are those who don’t believe in any improvement of these grazing areas. Before domestication, horses fattened up all spring/summer/fall traveling long distances to stay with the best grazing and then lived sparsely throughout the winter.
Modern horses haven’t changed much physically or physiologically from those times but now don’t travel much of anywhere and are often put out on lush grass for part of the day.
They have ended up with metabolic conditions similar to those that we sedentary humans deal with and are keeping veterinarians in business and grain makers always coming out with new formulas like low-carb rations.
But despite the hay complaints, I like that having horses gets me outside early in the morning and late in the evening often after dark. I enjoy wildlife in the barn and fields on a daily basis and get to enjoy the woods trails when I ride. We improve our rocky soil naturally with manure as fertilizer. And the best part about needing hay is that I keep a connection with local agriculture that is a necessity when you have horses to feed.
Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.