Hay is a grass, legume, or other herbaceous plant that has been cut, dried, baled and stored for use as forage for livestock animals. Before there were cars, trucks and farm equipment, workhorses provided transportation and helped with work on the farm and in other industries. Hay was the fuel that made the horses go. Farmers needed large quantities of hay for their cattle and sheep. Horses were also used in mining, lumbering and road building industries. Horses used for hauling and transportation in cities needed fodder, too. Farmers put up hay for their own use and sold the extra in local markets or baled it and shipped it to markets further away. Haymaking was a multi-step process that involved cutting, gathering, drying and storing grasses or legumes, like alfalfa or clover. Hay was best made during the summer months. First the hay was cut with a scythe or a mower. Then sun and wind dried the hay as it lay in the field. When the moisture content was low enough, the hay was raked up and stored in stacks in the field or loaded on a hay rack or elevator (conveyor) and hauled to the yard. Here it could be stored in stacks or in the mow (loft) of a barn. The loose hay would continue to dry and was fed out by pitching it down to the animals below. Most haymaking was done by family members, male and female, working with neighbors and casual help. Hired men usually got the heavy work, such as pitching hay or building stacks. Women and older children often did the raking and drove the teams of horses. Smaller children brought lunches and cold drinks to the hayfield.
Today, farmers still need hay to feed their animals; however, machinery does most of the work. Even though machines are the key aspects in making hay, the process is still similar to the way it was done in the past. The majority of hay operations in Louisiana are based on warm-season perennial grasses. Bermuda grass is an important warm season perennial forage grass grown in Louisiana. It is productive from spring until late fall and is well suited to both grazing and hay production. Many pastures and hay fields in the state have a base of Bermuda with other grasses such as bahia and dallisgrass mixed in. Louisiana does have a small amount of alfalfa hay production, which is primarily used in the horse industry. Louisiana has excellent conditions for growing hay, which requires plenty of rain followed by hot, dry weather for harvest. For a successful hay crop, the farmer must manage the fields properly. Soil fertility, weed management and insect control are all factors that the farmer must monitor.
The goal is to begin harvesting the hay is when it is at its peak nutritional value. The peak value will vary depending on the variety of grass and the species of livestock the hay will be fed. The first step to harvesting hay is cutting. A hay cutter is used for this process. Hay cutters are designed to be adjustable and cut at higher levels, which promote faster regrowth. Once cut, the hay must remain in the field to dry. The dry hay is then raked into windrows. To reduce moisture content, a tedder is used to speed up the drying process. The tedder will turn over, “fluff,” the hay in the windrows. Once the moisture level has been reduced, the hay can be baled with a hay baler pulled by a tractor. Most hay is now baled in round bales. Round balers produce bales weighing 600-2,000 pounds. Hay is also baled into smaller square bales. The bales are either left in the field until they are used or transported to a covered storage area. Harvest typically occurs from May through October.
The primary purpose for grasses grown for hay is feed for livestock. Hay is usually fed during the winter months. Hay is also used as bedding material and is gaining more popularity as a seasonal decorative item.
TERMS TO KNOW
Mower - A machine used for cutting grass
Tedder - Equipment used after cutting and before windrowing. It uses moving forks to aerate the hay and speed up the process of hay making
Dew - Tiny drops of water that form on cool surfaces at night, when atmospheric vapor condenses
Rake - Used to collect cut hay into windrows for later collection
Windrow - A long line of raked hay laid out to dry in the wind
Baler - A machine for making hay
Tractor - A powerful motor vehicle with large rear wheels, used chiefly on farms for hauling equipment and trailers
Perennial - A plant that lives more than two years