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Haymaking Mistakes Newbies and Hobby Farmers Should Avoid

Hobby Farmer
Hobby farmers make many mistakes during their first year of hay making.

Farming is hardly a precise science. Mother Nature can throw curves that even veteran haymakers can’t handle. But learning from the mistakes of others can go a long way to ensuring a successful first-year hay harvest, even for the hobby farmer.

Hay Making Mistake: Choosing the Wrong Kind of Hay

Inexperienced farmers are often tempted to plant the wrong kind of hay for their soil or their climate, simply because that particular species brings a high price. Alfalfa is a case in point. Because of its high protein value, alfalfa is popular with many livestock producers. But growing that legume successfully presupposes optimal soil conditions: pH levels of 6.5 for a virgin crop, a good depth and a level, well-disked surface.

Even with the right soil and the right climate, the alfalfa grower will need to fertilize regularly, to meet the crop’s high demand for phosphorus and potassium. Because alfalfa fields lie dormant for longer than grass crops, weeds can get a head start in winter. The increased need for herbicides, fertilizer and lime (if the soil is too acidic) can undercut whatever benefits that high per-bale price may bring.

This doesn’t mean alfalfa is a taboo for the novice, but he should thoroughly study alfalfa management; while at least investigating such lower maintenance alternatives:

  • Timothy- which tolerates cold well.
  • Orchardgrass- a hearty grower in diverse climates and forage actually preferred by many livestock producers.

Hay Making Mistake: Waiting Too Long to Cut

Seeing a thriving hayfield warms any farmer’s heart. The newbie, however, is often tempted to let that crop grow just a little higher to maximize the yield. That can be a poor decision for several reasons. Admittedly, a delayed harvest may result in more bales, but the quality may suffer. Those bales may have more stems than leaves or the leaves may have less nutrition, because the plant had been putting its energy into setting seed.

Early mowing increases the likelihood of multiple harvests, because cutting stimulates growth hormones. Even in the cool Northeast, farmers can sometimes squeeze four cuttings into one growing season. Second-, third- or fourth-cut hay has a higher nutritional value than the first cut — and brings a higher price.

Timely mowing is also an ally in the war against weeds. Cutting before horse nettle, sneezeweed, buttercups and other weeds get too well established prevents those pests from overshadowing the hay crop.

Hay Making Mistake : Folding Before the Chips are Down

Like any good poker player who knows when to bluff through a lackluster hand, a successful farmer needs to recognize those disasters that can be fixed. A common mistake, for example, is to assume that just-cut hay will be ruined after an unforeseen downpour.

Instead of throwing up his hands, the farmer should run for his tedder, once the rain stops. By spreading out the rows, he just may be able to dry and bale the harvest before the next surprise from Mother Nature.

What hay making advice would you give to a first year farmer? 

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