Quality hay is Sheboygan County’s basic coin of the realm

by Barry Johanson of The Review staff

On the cover, as if creating a lovely flag, Terry Groh “tets” (flips with a “swather” to speed drying) rows of cut alfalfa hay in a field he rents west of his family dairy farm near the intersection of County FF and Little Elkhart Lake Road northeast of Elkhart Lake.

The first cutting is in the flat, beige bands. What has been flipped shows as the green, dometopped stripes to be baled when dried.

Such practical art can be seen as the coin of the realm of Sheboygan County and throughout Wisconsin. Although easily taken for granted, hay is the true “greenback” of the local economy. By diverse ways its is converted into milk, butter, cheese, and meat— without which, nothing—plus provides the basis for the manufacturing of engines to boost the efficiency of harvesting, storing and feeding of it-, and all the spin-off industries and services which follow.

We’ve heard the saying “Make hay while the sun shines.” It could be said another way. “The sun shines on those who make hay.”

So what is this gold standard of our local economy? This grass roots of our local politics?

Good quality hay is green and not too coarse, and includes plant heads and leaves as well as stems. This is fresh grass/alfalfa hay, newly baled.

Hay is grass, legumes or other herbaceous plants that have been cut, dried, and stored for use as animal fodder, particularly for grazing livestock such as cattle, horses, goats, and sheep.

Hay can be used as animal fodder when or where there is not enough pasture or rangeland on which to graze an animal, when grazing is unavailable due to weather (such as during the winter) or when lush pasture by itself is too rich for the health of the animal. It is also fed during times when an animal is unable to access pasture, such as when animals are kept in a stable or barn.

Commonly used plants for hay include mixtures of grasses such as ryegrass, alfalfa and clovers. (Oat, barley, and wheat plant materials are more usually used in the form of straw, a harvest byproduct where the stems and dead leaves are baled after the grain has been harvested and threshed. Straw is used mainly for animal bedding.)

It is the leaf and seed material in the hay that determines its quality. Farmers try to harvest hay at the point when the seed heads are not quite ripe and the leaf is at its maximum when the grass is mowed in the field. The cut material is allowed to dry so that the bulk of the moisture is removed but the leafy material is still robust enough to be picked up from the ground by machinery and processed into storage in bales, stacks or pits.

The successful harvest of maximum yields of high-quality hay is entirely dependent on crop, field, and weather conditions. When this occurs, there may be a period of intense activity on the hay farm while harvest proceeds until weather conditions become unfavorable.

Hay is usually fed to an animal in place of allowing the animal to graze on grasses in a pasture, particularly in the winter or during times when drought or other conditions make pasture unavailable.

One of the most significant differences in hay digestion is between ruminant animals, such as cattle and sheep; and nonruminant, hindgut fermentors, such as horses. Both types of animals can digest cellulose in grass and hay, but do so by different mechanisms. Because of the fourchambered stomach of cattle, they are often able to break down older forage and have more tolerance of mold and changes in diet. The single-chambered stomach and cecum or “hindgut” of the horse uses bacterial processes to break down cellulose that are more sensitive to changes in feeds and the presence of mold or other toxins, requiring horses to be fed hay of a more consistent type and quality.

Different animals also use hay in different ways: cattle evolved to eat forages in relatively large quantities at a single feeding, and then, due to the process of rumination, take a considerable amount of time for their stomachs to digest food, often accomplished while the animal is lying down, at rest. Thus quantity of hay is important for cattle, who can effectively digest hay of low quality if fed in sufficient amounts. Sheep will eat between two and four percent of their body weight per day in dry feed, such as hay, and are very efficient at obtaining the most nutrition possible from three to five pounds per day of hay or other forage. They require three to four hours per day to eat enough hay to meet their nutritional requirements.

Unlike ruminants, horses digest food in small portions throughout the day, and can only use approximately 2.5 percent of their body weight in feed in any 24-hour period. They evolved to be continuously on the move while grazing, (covering up to 50 miles (80 km) per day in the wild) and their stomach digests food quite rapidly. Thus, they extract more nutrition out of smaller quantities of feed

During the growing season, which is spring and early summer in temperate climates, grass grows at a fast pace. It is at its greatest nutritive value when all leaves are fully developed and seed or flower heads are just a bit short of full maturity. When growth is at a maximum in the pasture, if judged correctly, the pasture is cut. Hay cut too early will not cure as easily due to high moisture content, plus it will produce a lower yield per acre than longer, more mature grass. But hay cut too late is coarser, lower in resale value and has lost some of its nutrients. There is usually about a two-week “window” of time in which hay is at its ideal stage for harvesting.

Hay can be raked into rows as it is cut, then turned periodically to dry, particularly if a modern swather is used.

If hay is baled while too moist or becomes wet while in storage, there is a significant risk of spontaneous combustion

If hay is stacked with wet grass, the heat produced can be sufficient to ignite the hay causing a fire.

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