Second Crop Scramble

It’s been an interesting year for our hayfields. Last summer we qualified for a honeybee habitat grant, which helped kick-start some much-needed revitalization work on cleared acreage not currently being grazed on the farm.

Every year, the land was hayed (usually once a year around the 4th of July), and while we spread what extra manure and bedding from the barns and coops was available (and not being forked into the garden), it was not anywhere near enough to keep up with the land’s needs. Topsoil was thin, the sward count (thickness of the grasses) was lean in many places, and daisies sprouted copiously, announcing low calcium.

The honeybee habitat grant involved boosting exhausted potassium levels, adding calcium-rich lime, and a nitrogen boost, as well as no-till inter-seeding of more legumes and grasses. Along the edge of the fields, we also planted 400 native flowering shrubs—plum, chokecherry, chokeberry, and elderberry—for floral variety for the visiting bees. Adding more legumes in the pasture not only offer great nectar supplies, but the nodules on clover roots help trap nitrogen from the air and add it to the soils for other plants to use, improving the vitality of the field.

For the seeding process, we cut off the first crop hay and had it round-baled to store outside, while we hoped the efforts would yield a hearty second crop. The grasses in the field focus first on making a seed head, which yields stalky, seedy bales. Once the seed head has been removed, the plant spends more time on leafing out in order to store energy harvested from the sun in its root system, from which they will grow anew next spring. The “second crop” leaves are energy dense and an important food source in winter for our pregnant and lactating ewes. Good hay translates into healthy, happy lambs, easy births, and lots of milk as we wait for the pastures to green.

I can only remember getting second crop hay one other year, and that was only from the back end of the North Field, where we spread most of the extra manure from the barn. It was maybe a few hundred bales. The day was chilly, with a September breeze—a welcomed relief from July’s brutal 90 degree baling episode.

But this year, we didn’t know what to expect. Would the potassium and nutrient boost carry through the summer? Would the inter-seeding thicken up the foliar growth? In August, I rode past the Back Field and noticed it was a sea of blooming purple clover, just thick and lush. There was certainly some serious growth still happening!

But it’s hard to know until the hay hits the ground what kind of volume is at hand. Well, that time came last week, with the dry and breezy weather.

Andy Groeschl and his dad Jeff came to cut and rake, working both the unfenced part of the North Field and the entire Back Field. What would have taken us days and days on our put-put Owatonna haybine and the 35 horse Allis D-15 was cut in one afternoon while we kept Farmstead Creamery open for visitors.

“There’s a lot of hay out there,” was Jeff’s comment as we prepared for baling on Monday. “I hope you can get some help.”

But finding help once school season and sports have started up again was no easy task. There were the three of us ladies, Steve, and his friend Arnie from church who could come, and a few extra borrowed wagons from the neighbor. I hurried back from a dental appointment as the second wagonload of small squares was being pulled into the Red Barn. The day was pretty warm and sunny with a strong north breeze. I grabbed a sunhat, a white long-sleeved shirt, and a pair of work gloves and headed out to the Back Field, where my sister Kara was stacking by herself while the rest of the crew unloaded.

Jeff drove the Kubota tractor while I pulled bales off the red New Holland baler as they chugged, chugged up the chute—tossing them to Kara who packed and stacked them in the back. Two the long way, one the short way, then two the long way. Then the next row up was packed in the opposite direction to “tie” the layers together so the load moved together across the uneven terrain and didn’t fall apart on the bumpy trail back to the barn.

Bits of chaff flew about in the breeze, stinging our eyes and coating our sweating necks. Meanwhile, the neighbor’s cows flicked their tails and chewed, watching the amusing parade trundle back and forth across the field. By the time we’d have one wagon stacked four or five levels high, Mom and the rest of the crew had unloaded another wagon and an empty was ready for us.

That is, until darkness was approaching. The bales kept coming and coming. Kara and I would scramble up and down on the wagon with the tightly-packed bales, rich and green. The barn-stacking crew was up to the rafters, tossing bales off the wagon and stuffing them seven or eight levels high. The wagons came back slower and slower.

“Let’s get all the windrows in the shade!” Jeff called and took off with the baler and no wagon (because they were all full) in a style he called “pooping them out on the ground.” A bale here, a bale there. Some were a bit wet from the oncoming dew and would have to be fed right away. Then Andy arrived with the baler he’d been using on the North Field to help finish the job. That meant the entire North Field that had been cut was littered with bales yet to be picked up! And it was growing dark!

Thankfully, there was no rain coming that night, and we pulled the last of the full wagons into the barn so they would at least be protected from the dew, hit the shower, and called it a day. But it wasn’t over. Kara was able to hire a Mennonite family to come with a powered stacker to at least bring the bales to the barn, and our crew continued work from mid-morning well into the dark on Tuesday. There’s still some stacking to do, but at least it’s all into building before the rains came on Thursday. This was a big job, and we’re grateful for all the extra hands that could pitch in to “get ‘er done.”

Instead of just a few hundred for second crop, Kara estimates we moved about 2,000 bales of hay! Steve says that’s something like 80,000 pounds of winter feed for the sheep (and soon to be cows too). Yikes! It was a real scramble to get that all in before the weather changed. What a year for second crop! Back massage anyone? See you down on the farm sometime.