What the Hay? Part I

Orchardgrass hay cut and drying. Photo by Ivegotyourpicture.com

Where does hay come from?  The obvious answer is grass. We think little of cutting open a new bale, throwing the horses a few flakes, dusting our hands and moving on with our horsey lives. But let me tell you — a LOT of work went into producing your hay.

It all starts with growing, planting quality grass and maintaining nutritious soil. Grass is only as good as the ground it comes from. A good hay farmer takes soil samples annually and adds necessary lime, fertilizer or potash as needed. The field will likely be sprayed for weeds as well. Then it’s up to the weather — hopefully a good balance of rain and sunshine. But growing it isn’t so bad; sit back and let Mother Nature do her thing with just a little supplemental help.

It’s the cutting part that puts food on the table. Timing is crucial: harvesting when the grass is at its peak nutritional value, yet within an opportunistic weather window. You can have the best quality hay in your field, but if it’s cut and then rained on, chances are it’s worth little more than cow hay. Hay needs at least a day and a half of sunshine to dry; bale it wet, you get mold. The hay can be tedded or spread around to assist the drying process, flipping it over to expose the moist places.

Morning dew will collect on it, and it is important for that to burn off before raking and baling. A technologically advanced hay farmer will have a moisture tester to give an immediate digital readout; anything over 25 percent is way too wet; 15 percent or less is ideal. Anything over 15 percent should be sprayed with a preservative as it’s baled to guard against mold. Once dry, the hay is raked into windrows where it can be picked up by the baler.

Hay raked into windrows. Photo by Ivegotyourpicture.com

Baling. That’s often my job. I would consider myself in the novice or training level of tractor driving; I can maintain basic direction, balance and speed on moderate terrain. I drive the tractor and baler, sucking up the hay rows and spitting bales out the back where they gather in a Kuhns accumulator. The accumulator is a fancy device that arranges (accumulates) bales in groups of 10 or 18, depending on model.

Later, another tractor with a grapple attachment picks up the group of bales and stacks them on a wagon; from there, they are unloaded with the same grapple into a barn for storage. The accumulator is a marvelous invention; without it, all bales would be picked up and stacked by hand. Now that’s a lot of work!

Bales falling into the accumulator.

Ok, so I mentioned weed killer and preservatives. Not all hay is organic, despite growing from the same dirt. Everyone wants soft, leafy, clean hay — no thistles, no dockweed, no pigweed, no johnson grass — nothing but palatable, yummy forage. A modest application of herbicide will eliminate unwanted broadleaf species and give the grass a boost. And it is safe for horses; many Kentucky Thoroughbred farms use it on their pastures annually.

Regarding preservatives — propionic acid is a common one, as well as Crop Saver and HayGuard (mixed with citric acid). These won’t hurt your horses either. Propionic acid is actually a fatty acid produced by bacteria in your horse’s hindgut. But it also has the ability to inhibit mold growth in hay that’s a little high in moisture when baled.

At moistures of 17 percent to 30 percent, mold, fungi and yeasts start to multiply in untreated hay. Mold growth also causes heating.  Preservatives may also retain the hay’s bright green color. You certainly have the right to avoid “chemically treated” hay, but keep in mind how the overall quality may be affected.

After it’s baled, hay should be stored in a dry, ventilated area, preferably stacked on edge to assist drying.Hay will finish out to around 8 to 10 percent moisture after curing (drying) for two to three weeks. If fresh, wet hay is stacked tightly in the barn, it will heat up! Hay baled at moistures of 17 percent to 22 percent will heat to over 115 degrees, enough to cause discoloration and loss of the hay’s fresh smell.

Between 23 percent and 26 percent, hay can reach temps of over 125 degrees in storage, causing brown to black hay with caramelized mold. Moisture levels of over 27 percent can result in heating to more than 140 degrees and above and may even combust. Don’t worry — so long as your hay has been baled more than a month ago, your barn won’t burn down,  and it’s safe to store in your loft. If hay is going to mold from improper drying, it will show it within the first few weeks.

Coming up: How to select your hay. What should you look for in a bale? Is timothy the best? What about alfalfa? We’ll discuss different types of forage and what might suit your horse. Always keep in mind that your eyes are not connected to your horse’s taste buds. What looks pretty to you may not taste as good to him and vice versa. Have a hay question? Email it to [email protected], and I’ll pass it on to the hay expert.


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