The sound of busy tractors can be heard in hayfields throughout our local valleys—including ours—as farmers rush to harvest their first cutting of hay of the season. The weather has been dry and sunny with modest heat for most of the past few weeks making it perfect to be working out in the fields. Although it is a little dry for this time of the year, the hay in the fields has been growing well. The tall grass may be protecting the soil in the hayfields from drying out as rapidly as it does on a closely mowed yard. I am very impressed with the quality of the hay we produced in our small, 3.5-acre hayfield this season. In prior years, invasive weeds, including milkweed, wild mustard, broom sage, and a number of other thick-stemmed plants, were taking root throughout our little field. However, we have diligently wandered through the field to carefully spray the persistent invasives, gradually eradicating them one season at a time.
We have also practiced good hayfield management practices to favor the growth of the mixed grasses that we seek to encourage. While most farmers seek to time their first cutting of hay just before the grass seed-heads mature and drop their seeds, we have waited an extra week or two over the past few seasons until the seed-heads fully mature and turn a golden brown. This encourages the grass to reseed the field more thoroughly, which gradually thickens the grass density and helps choke out the weeds. We also mow our second cutting early enough in September to keep the broom sage, which typically matures and seeds at the end of the season, from re-establishing itself. These determined weed management practices have gradually transformed our hayfield into the beautiful stand of nearly pure mixed grass that I began to mow yesterday. The grass in our field stands at least three feet tall and, aside from a few scattered milkweed plants (which we will again walk the field and spray individually when they grow back during the summer) and some wild daisies (which are not as tough-stemmed as the truly bad weeds) our hayfield is now dominated by the soft and succulent mixed grasses that livestock prefer to eat.
Just walking through the tall grass in our field gives you a sense of what the grassland prairies must have been like before the American frontier was settled. I enjoy the simple pleasure of standing in our field with my eyes closed and my arms and hands outstretched at the height of the grass to feel the gentle brush of a dry summer breeze rippling across the field like waves on a pond. The standing hay also provides the perfect night-time stage for thousands upon thousands of fireflies that rise into the air like burning embers and perform their glowing light dance. It’s simple pleasures like those I have just described that make a pretty hayfield a joy to behold and appreciate. It amazes me to know that many urban people can view our lovely farm hayfield as nothing more than a forest of unsightly weeds. It’s simply incredible for me to understand how the imagination of people who casually profess and believe themselves to be enlightened and educated can be so limited.
In the early years before we retired, our hayfield and a neighbor’s yard were seeded and hayed each summer by Scott Kimble, a nearby livestock farmer who raises market steer. However, as our retirement approached, our neighbor decided to mow his acre of yard and the gradual construction of farm, garage, barn, garden, and livestock pens gradually ate away at the acreage that he could hay, until we were left with the 3.5-acre field we manage today. He mowed our hayfield for the last time in 2017, when he decided that the limited hay crop and the threat to his equipment from numerous rock outcrops didn’t warrant the time he was investing and the dwindling number of bales he could harvest from it. As he cut back on his fertilizing and seeding of the hay in the final years, the invasive weeds began to take hold in the field. That’s when we decided to take control of the situation and mow the field ourselves. I have mowed it twice annually every year since 2018.
Although the protein levels in the mixed grasses that grow in our field are not ideal for dairy goats, they were adequate to fatten Scott’s market steer. Our dairy goats prefer alfalfa or clover hay, which have the higher protein levels they need to support good milk production. Therefore, we can’t use the hay we grow in our field as the primary feed for our goats, which is why we buy hay annually from former dairy farmers in our area who now specialize in hay sales from the fields they once harvested to feed their own cows. Nevertheless, our goats do enjoy eating the freshly cut hay from our field, the sweet aroma of which they can smell in the air as soon as I finish mowing. Therefore, we rake up some of the loose hay I cut from our first cutting each year and feed it to them as a tasty treat. They eagerly relish it with great pleasure, even though it really won’t help them produce high volumes of milk. At least we are not just letting it go to waste.
Recently, one of our new next-door neighbors expressed his interest in raising some meat-goats to clean up a small, wooded meadow on his property. He has access to the extra haying equipment we lack to rake and bale the hay crop in our field, and has expressed an interest in it. While it isn’t a large field, the number of bales it can produce over two cuttings would easily feed the number of goats he could keep on his property for the year. The protein levels in the hay would be adequate to feed his desired meat goat herd. Therefore, we will let him harvest the hay when he buys his goats, with the provision that we can rake up a few wheelbarrow and cart loads of fresh hay for our goats to enjoy. After all, once they become used to that treat, it would be cruel to make them watch and smell it being harvested, but deprive them of the tasty treat they have come to anticipate.
Now that haying season has begun, we know that summer has returned to our area. The strong, sweet aroma of fresh-cut hay is a sensory delight as we drive through our valleys. What a beautiful start to the active season. Once I finish mowing the hayfield today—my work yesterday was interrupted by some sporadic showers—we can focus our attention on our vegetable garden, as we prepare for the first day of the Grant County Farmer’s Market on Saturday, June 5. We hope we will see you there! Happy summer from all of us here at Peeper Pond Farm.