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Tales of a Hay Hauler: The 95%-5% rule

Brad Nelson for Progressive Forage Published on 31 January 2022

For 5% hay, the stand of alfalfa in the field had to be robust. The guys pulling the soil sample and the guys prescribing the needed fertilizer had to hit it spot on. The herbicide had to take out all the weeds without stunting the growth of the alfalfa.

The irrigation system had to function as designed. No blowout pipeline leaks. No pumps burning up on the second day of a hot spell. No circle towers falling down causing not only a delay in getting water to the field but the same field being trodden under by the trucks and cranes that would have to address the fallen tower where it lay, usually in the hardest part of the field to access.

The weather had to cooperate. Lots of sunshine, very warm but not sweltering days plus cool nights for even growth. No heat waves just as the current cutting was starting a vibrant growth following the previous cutting.

No furry little rascals piling up mounds of dirt as they crafted their tunnels beneath the crop, stunting the crop as they feasted on the tender root shoots from inside those tunnels.

Those mounds of dirt would clog the sickle of the older cutter-bar swathers as they laid down the hay at harvest. The clog would cause hay to clump up and prevent that portion of the sickle from mowing the hay, dragging over it instead. The operator had to almost see it happen to be able to stop and dig the dirt out of the sickle bar before it made a mess in the field and added wet, matted and muddy clumps to the windrowed hay.

The current generation of swathers are rotaries. Think two dozen lawn mowers fastened together in a row but around ten times more robust than the blades of your normal suburban lawn mower.

When a rotary swather encounters a gopher mound, it fairly well pulverizes it without clogging or leaving a streak in the field dragged over and without loading the windrow with muddy clumps.

The good part of this is that mowing the hay proceeds uninterrupted by the pesky mounds of dirt. The downside is that the gopher infestation may go unnoticed until there’s a decrease in tonnage or when the lab analysis of the crop show a shockingly high amount of ash in the test results. Ash is mineral, and dirt is mineral. Dirt contamination heavy enough to be visible can get an export container rejected when it reaches foreign shores.

This worst-case scenario is why when prospective hay buyers pull a core sample for analysis, they will bag the sample, seal the bag and then “rattle” the bag laid flat over their fingers. Dirt in the bag will settle to the bottom side of the sample and be visible when the bag is turned over. Visible dirt in a sample will negatively affect the price offered on the hay, if the buyer is even interested after seeing the dirt.

Once these hurdles are met and the hay is in the windrow, there’s more. Five percent hay needs to be bright green in the bale. It also needs to be dry enough to keep – to not turn “tobacco” brown or mold in the bale.

This means the hay grower needs a window without rain, without high humidity and without high winds that could scatter the hay over the next county. (I once had a grandson with me while talking to a hay grower. His hay was in the windrow needing maybe one more day before baling. A whirlwind came across the area. My grandson stood wide-eyed and marveling as the maybe 10-foot wide (at the mouth) whirlwind picked up the hay and spiraled it 60 feet into the air. As my grandson was jumping up and down excited and laughing as he said, “Grandpa! Look at that!” the poor hay grower was doing his best to avoid profaning in front of the boy.)

Warm weather dries hay. Nice gentle steady breezes help warm weather to dry hay. Sunshine also helps dry hay. It also bleaches the hay, changing the bright green color to a muted pale green, then it progresses to bleaching most of the green from the surface of the hay. A high overcast sky will mute the bleaching effect of the sun. High overcast clouds, unfortunately, are first cousin to rain clouds. And rain, especially on hay that was almost ready to bale, is not a pleasant event.

The final step is for the now-dry hay in the windrow to receive just enough dew moisture to toughen the structure between the leaf and the stem so that as the baler picks up the hay to bale, the leaves come with it and remain attached as the hay is baled.

Getting it stacked and covered prior to any rain completes the 5% hay. And with that, the 95% is better understood. end mark