Saturday, July 18, 2015

Baling Hay

Last week, I started baling this summer's hay crop, and the first field to be baled was the hay meadow that I wrote about last year.  Last year, I wrote that I liked these native grasses because they were relatively low-input and they reliably gave me a hay crop year after year.  In the past, I never worried about a few weeds or even thought about fertilizing, but last winter I happened to read about a research project done by the Noble Foundation about the effects of fertilizer on native grass stands which came to the conclusion that fertilizing native grasses would result in much more grass growth although the profitability of that fertilizing might vary from farmer to farmer.

Back in early spring, I was still thinking that we might be headed into another drought (that was before the skies opened up and it rained non-stop for a month, so that's that for my weather forecasting abilities) so based on the data from the Noble Foundation studies, I decided to fertilize the hay meadow with a little over 100 lb. of 18-46-0 fertilizer per acre (which would be approximately 20 lb. of Nitrogen and 50 lb. of Phosphorus per acre) to make sure I'd have enough hay.  I also decided to spray the field for weeds because I wanted to fertilize the grass and I didn't really want to fertilize any weeds because of the old rule of thumb that you NEVER want to fertilize weeds.  The fertilizer and herbicide cost approximately $30/acre.

I wasn't really sure how much effect the fertilizer and weed control would have on my hay crop (I always try not to get my hopes up too high), but it was pretty obvious that there weren't that many weeds in the field even before I started cutting the hay which was a little encouraging.

In the end, I ended up with about 50% more bales of hay (4500 lb. per acre vs. 3000 lb. per acre) from that field compared to my best year's hay production which I'd count as a success.  An extra 1500 lb. of hay per acre for $30 is pretty close to a bargain in my mind. 

In addition to the extra hay production, I also noticed that I had a high percentage of big bluestem, switch grass, and even some sideoats grama grass (very unusual) growing in the field.  I've always read and heard that it takes more fertility and management to get a higher percentage of those types of grasses into a native grass pasture, so I'm guessing that the fertilizer helped to thicken up those "better" grasses.   If I was positive that I could do the same thing and get more big bluestem grass, I'd be tempted to start managing some pastures this way in an attempt to move closer to native tall grass prairie type of pastures.  

Supposedly, Grandpa would have had a fit over those uncut strips of grass left in the field, but it's never really bothered me, although the way the hay rake left the windrows all clumpy and uneven does kind of irritate me. 

Now I have to decide what to do next year.  Do I fertilize and control the weeds once again?  Do I only spray for weeds and hope there's enough fertility left from this year for a decent hay crop (phosphorus is supposed to be longer lasting)?  Do I spread some nitrogen fertilizer instead of 18-46-0?  Do I go the low-input way and do nothing at all?

The one thing I know for sure is that it's a heck of a lot more fun cutting and baling a thick stand of weed-free grass than cutting and baling a thin weedy stand of grass.


  1. Nice looking hay field! Your fields are so lush compared to what we tend to see here.

    1. This was the best field of prairie hay I've ever had, I wish all my pastures looked that good.

      Combined with the fertilizer and weed control, the amount of rain we've had this year, and the way it hasn't really gotten that hot until last week we've had pretty good growing conditions for hay this year. Last year's conditions were awful close to being the same as this year's conditions except for the fertilizer and weed control, so I'm pretty confident that it was worth the effort.

      If the drought had came back, I'd be willing to bet that fertilizing and spraying for weeds might have been the difference between having something to bale and not having anything at all for hay.

  2. In Iowa we have a state extension office where you can send soil samples for free/low cost and help you answer those kinds of questions of what to do next year.

    I don't ever remember my father fertilizing hay fields but then, most of ours were alfalfa and no grass. These days, the fields of switch grass and big bluestem are in the CRP program and they only release them for mowing in times of drought which is the opposite of what this year is turning out to be.

    1. I thought about doing some soil testing, but I couldn't find much info about what sort of fertility a stand of native warm season grass would need, so I figured the results from the soil test wouldn't do me much good if I didn't know exactly what sort of fertility I needed (if that makes any sense).

      Based on the fact that this field had probably never been fertilized, I thought that any level of fertilizer would help simply because so much had been taken off of the field for so long. Now I'm wondering how much more production I could get if I managed it even better, so soil tests next year might be the way to go so I at least have some sort of baseline for reference in the future.

      I really dislike CRP, but cutting a CRP field during a drought seems like the worst time to bale hay for the future health of the grass (of course, CRP also isn't really designed for that purpose). To get quality hay and a healthy pasture, you'd be much better off to bale it in a year with a lot of moisture and store it for the drought years.

  3. I would be very interested in hearing why you dislike CRP. I'm guessing perhaps it is a regional thing because up here, I have seen many benefits to it. Almost all land in the CRP were old clay knobs with little soil that had eroded all their top soil long ago. They grew little to any crops planted on them consistently year after year. Once planted in a healthy stand of native grasses, I've seen wildlife explode, mostly among the pheasant populations. Many don't take care of their CRP lands but we have always burned ours every other winter and as a result, the native grasses are very thick and lush. I tried once walking through some of it to hunt some of the million pheasants that lived there but gave up. Not only was it hard to walk through but I couldn't see anything.

    On a sidenote, I agree with your views on mowing the CRP. Since we don't own hay feeding animals, we never mowed ours. It totally defeats the purpose of the program by allowing people to do so.

    1. That's a tough question to answer in a short comment and I might post a longer post in the future with more about what I think about CRP, but the short answer is I don't really like dealing with either the FSA or the NRCS. It's the one of the few things I don't like about farming, and I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction which might not always be justified whenever I think about any of the programs that come out of the Farm Bill.

      I also don't think land can be effectively managed for either cropping, grazing, erosion, or wildlife habitat with a rigid set of rules. Using your example, if you were allowed to mow strips across that field full of pheasants (because wildlife likes habitat edges), you would probably have even more wildlife and better hunting opportunities.

      If you baled hay in strips instead of just mowing strips, you could feed some cattle, have more wildlife, and you'd be able to hunt it easier. If I had the guts, it might not be a bad idea for me to try leaving a few unmowed strips in a hay meadow sometime for the quail and pheasants.

      If you wintered cattle on the field after the grass went dormant in the fall, you'd feed a lot of cattle and improve the grass. Instead of burning a field to remove the dead grass, the cattle would stomp everything down over the winter, fertilize it for you, and build more organic matter in the soil.

      So to my way of thinking, without CRP but with a little management you could rebuild eroded fields quicker, you could create more wildlife habitat, and you could generate some cash flow from grazing and hay. It's always possible that you could improve CRP by allowing more flexibility in the program, but I still don't like dealing with the FSA or NRCS.

  4. You make some fair points about the rigid rules and if we ran cattle, I definitely would probably fall in the same camp. But as non-cattle farmers, the areas we have in the CRP are not farmable. Sure the fields could be rebuilt organically but as soon as farming began again, they would quickly return to the state they were without cost prohibitive terracing.

    I guess a lot of my feelings toward the CRP program are more emotional than rational. I like having land with native prairie grasses that might resemble how it looked before it was taken from the Indians. By mowing strips we might be able to raise more pheasants and provide more hunting opportunity but I would rather prefer giving them a safe sanctuary so that I can just enjoy watching them. One 50 acre field provides more than enough habitat to sustain a healthy population without trying to increase their population by artificial means.

    But in your response, I do know and understand where you are coming from when you say you dislike the CRP program. I also completely agree that dealing with the government on anything sucks. No argument there.

    1. Hundreds of years ago, tall grass prairies would have had herds of buffalo and elk grazing on them and they would have been a patchwork of burned areas from a few naturally occurring fires and a lot of man-made burns designed to manage the prairies to man's advantage. It would have had overgrazed areas and areas that hadn't been grazed for years. At times, droughts would have killed most of the animals and at other times wet periods would have caused an overabundance of grass and animals.

      A solid block of native grasses in CRP isn't really "natural" at all, and if you extended the practice of a CRP field out to a few hundred years by excluding large grazing animals, burning the entire field off at the same time of year, etc. it would eventually stop being a tall grass prairie.

      A CRP program that included large grazing animals like cattle for short intense periods of grazing would come closer to recreating a functioning tall grass prairie. But since CRP isn't really designed to recreate tall grass prairie that's never going to happen.

  5. On a related note, I would like to see an experiment done on some native prairie grasses to see which increases the health of the plot more, cattle grazing and their fertilizing the area or regular burnings which do more than just burn off the dead grass.

    1. Oklahoma State University had some trials sort of like that done in the past that I've read where they burned native grasses in the spring and grazed stockers during the summer. Burning will control most non-native weeds and brush that aren't adapted to burning, and the stockers gained more on the burned areas.

      Personally, I think most of the increased weight gains of the stockers was because the burning controlled parasites in the pastures like worms and ticks rather than promoting more grass growth.

      Somewhere else I've read that while burning will control cedars in a pasture, it can also promote the growth of blackberries.

      Cattle grazing is more than just the amount of manure they might spread in a pasture, greatly simplified, prairies and cattle (and other grazing animals) have a symbiotic relationship and they need each other to be healthy. Simply spreading manure doesn't have the same results in a prairie as isn't the same as having cattle grazing. Everything from the cattle like the manure, urine, hair, slobber, and milk is needed for grass to be healthy.

      Grasslands wouldn't exist without animals like cattle in the same way that cattle wouldn't exist without grasslands. That's one reason why I don't like CRP, it removes grazing animals like cattle from the grass and the grass needs the grazing.