“Half your hay by Ground Hog Day,” is an old saying that helps a farmer estimate how much hay is needed to make it through the winter. Even if Punxsutawney Phil's shadow does not frighten him back into hibernation, and spring comes early, livestock will still need hay well into April.
On the coldest days, we dish out four or five 1,000-pound round bales of wrapped hay called baleage. After it's cut, grass used for baleage is allowed to dry just a bit. It's best when only 40 percent of the moisture in the grass has evaporated. Then this wet grass is rolled into large, round bales, wrapped with mesh and covered with plastic. The plastic wrap creates an airtight seal that allows the hay to ferment. Without the plastic seal, the damp grass would rot. Sealed, the wet hay ferments into a delicious, juicy meal; high in protein and pleasing to a cow's palate.
We feed baleage because there is more protein in fermented hay than in dry hay. Not all livestock can eat fermented hay. Horses, goats, and donkeys might get sick or die if they eat baleage, so we feed them the dry stuff. But cows thrive on it.
If the plastic rips and air gets into the bale the hay will spoil, so careful handling is required. Wild animals love this stuff, too. Porcupines will rip open bales left in the field, eating what they want and leaving the rest to spoil. Spoilage can be controlled by applying special, expensive tape to each tear, sealing the bale tight again and protecting our investment.
Our yearly bill for more than 500 of those big, round bales is $30,000 – a number that shocks me every time I think about it.
While we don't want to waste expensive hay, it's essential that cattle get enough to eat. They use a lot more energy to keep warm in sub-zero weather, so they have to eat more.
Once daily we strip the wrapping off three to five round bales, depending on the temperature, and husband Bruce carries them two at a time out to the pasture. He's really strong–especially when he's driving the skid-steer tractor. Then the ground crew, usually me, strips the plastic and removes the inner lining. This task can get painful and frustrating when the plastic cover or the inner mesh wrap freezes into the hay. That's when I have to take the gloves off my already frozen fingers and pick at the wrapping. Brrrr.
Once the hay is free from its wrapping, Bruce delivers the bales to the field, placing them about 40 feet apart, so the cows have easy access.
If there are leftovers at the next feeding, that means we might have served one bale too many. But if the bales are gone, we probably got it right – unless we find the cattle are waiting impatiently at the gate for their next daily ration. That means we have fed them too little.
As I look at the 60 bales of hay in the baleage pit (a concrete bunker for storing feed) and think, “Half my hay by Ground Hog Day,” I know I'll have to buy more hay. Thankfully, Howard Pearl, a state legislator, and sixth-generation Loudon farmer, has plenty of bales to feed my hungry herd. Meanwhile, I'm hoping for a nice, cloudy, non-groundhog-scaring Feb. 2 with an early spring, and plenty of free grass ASAP.