Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Counting Hay Bales When the Sun Isn't Shining

I went out today to count how many bales of hay I had left after feeding the cattle this winter and ended up with 137 bales of hay.

Even though it was relatively wet last year (although it stopped raining around May), we've had drought conditions for about the last six years or so.

The summer of 2011 was supposedly worse than the droughts in the '30's, almost every day during the summer was over 100 degrees, the ponds were as low as I'd ever seen them, I was only able to bale about 60 bales of hay to add to the 60 bales I had left from the previous year,  and I almost didn't plant any wheat that fall because it was so dry I didn't think I could get the drill in the ground.  

It finally rained enough in late-October so that I could plant the wheat.  Then it rained even more, all of the ponds filled up to overflowing, and all of the wheat came up.  By rationing what hay I had and grazing a failed grain sorghum crop I somehow managed to make it until early-March before I ran out of hay.

Luckily, we got enough rain in April to get the grass growing and also give me a decent wheat crop. Enough rain fell by late-spring of 2012 that the drought was "officially" over.  

I wanted to believe that the drought was over, but I had a gut feeling that it wasn't. So, I baled the straw off of a 40 acre wheat field as insurance and then drilled in some sorghum-sudangrass. There was enough moisture in the ground for that sorghum-sudangrass to germinate and grow about 10-12" tall, then it just stopped growing because it stopped raining and the temperatures climbed.  

By the end of the summer of 2012, the drought that summer was being called the worst in recorded history, the ponds were lower than they had been the previous year (one dried up completely), the grass hadn't really grown all summer, I was thinking about selling a bunch of the cows after weaning their calves, I had another failed grain sorghum crop, and I only had about 50 bales of hay plus those 100 bales of wheat straw to feed the cattle over the winter.  The only thing that gave me much hope was that I had been no-tilling for a few years and was starting to see the benefits from it because there seemed to be enough moisture to get the drill into the ground so I could plant some wheat.

I didn't think there was any chance that I would be lucky enough for it to rain at the last minute like it had a year before,  but it finally rained in September (I didn't realize how stressed I actually was until I stood out in that rain and felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off of my shoulders). 

After it rained, the field of sorghum-sudangrass started growing again and I was cutting and baling it about 3 weeks later.  That failed grain sorghum crop did the same thing and I was able to salvage it by baling it too.  

That rain in September gave me enough extra hay to last until mid-April (I fed later into spring to give those drought-stressed pastures a chance to recover). 

By 2013, it had rained enough to have the drought declared over once again and my gut told me that it might actually be true this time.  But, I took advantage of the extra moisture and put up as much hay as I could,  40 acres of prairie hay, 60 acres of double-dropped crabgrass hay, and 40 acres of double-cropped sorghum-sudangrass.  Even though I had more than enough hay, I rationed it out like I had a limited amount of hay, and grazed a field of grain sorghum stubble before I started feeding any hay. 

Because of all that, on the first day of every month for the last three years, I've carefully counted how many bales of hay I had left, so I know where I've been and how much farther I can go. 

Fighting my way through those droughts showed me that I need to gamble on things more often (planting wheat and sorghum when the chances of success looked almost impossible, etc.), never give up (it will eventually rain, etc.), and I needed to have more confidence in whatever I'm doing (no-tilling saved my wheat crop a few times,etc.).  And, that change in mindset might be more important off the farm than it is on the farm.

Who would have thought that counting bales of hay could mean that much?  


  1. I don't depend on growing things to make a living... but the drought a couple of years ago definitely affected my mental health. It's awfully tough to watch rain cloud after rain cloud pass you by when everything needs the water so badly.

    There's a part of me that wishes I could have been spared a lot of trials and tribulations earlier in life. There's another part of me that is grateful... if not for the pain, at least for the lessons. I think there's a perspective that a person gets from enduring things and coming out on the other side that cannot really be obtained in any other way.

    1. During those summers, there weren't that many clouds to watch, that's why it got hotter and hotter and drier and drier.

      I've got a gut feeling that the drought is going to return this summer. I can't control if it rains or gets hot, so now I try to only worry about the things that I can control and I don't get as stressed as when I was always worrying about if it rained or not (if that makes sense).

      Struggling, pain, success, happiness, and either winning or losing is what has made me who I am for better or worse.

      There's probably another Rich in a parallel universe that had different struggles than the ones I've had that's wondering if I've had it better in this universe because I haven't had the same sort of struggles that he has had.

  2. Growing up on a farm through droughts and wet years and the farm crisis of the 80's I think played huge parts in why I left the farm and went into a 9 to 5 career. But despite all the stresses, I still feel the siren call of farming and sometimes think about going back. It gets in your blood and never quite leaves. My parents still farm and don't plan to sell their land so eventually I will go back one way or another.

    1. I kind of like (or it might be a better description to say I might be more suited to) the boom and bust, the swings from droughts to wet periods, extreme cold and extreme hot, etc. that can be found on a farm or ranch. I'm convinced that a 9 to 5 job would stress me out much more than the type of farming I'm doing.

      I try to stay away from the typical debt aspects of farming, and I'm more or less debt-free with the farm and run it on a cash basis which is a different sort of stress than dealing with the type of crushing debt that helped cause the Farm Crisis in the '80's.

      I've been thinking about telling the story of how I ended up on the farm, and learning that you think about going back to farm might help push me to tell that story a little sooner (But as usual, I ain't making any promises).