Hay – Should You Buy It or Grow It?
Hay is grass that has been cut, dried, and put in storage to use as animal feed. Hay is a necessity for many types of livestock and domesticated animals. Cutting and baling hay allow you to preserve grasses and legumes to feed animals when they aren't able to graze.
Hay is cut when the seed head of the grasses first pops out of the sheath. This is when you get maximum protein in your hay. Cutting and curing hay typically takes two to three days from cutting it until you put it in storage. During this time, you will need several pieces of equipment for cutting, raking, fluffing, and baling. If you don't already own the equipment to grow your own hay, you should estimate the cost before investing in them. You also want to think about which option will provide the best quality of hay for your animals.
Among other considerations, you should decide whether you have space to store your hay properly and safely. Smaller square bales of hay are usually stored inside the barn to feed to horses. Even indoors, you must take care to store the bales correctly to protect them from heat and moisture.
You can store large round bales of hay outdoors, but you need areas without shade that is open to breezes. You must also take care of how the bales are positioned and preferably use a cover to keep out moisture.
Which Animals Need Hay?
Large animals like horses and cattle require hay as fodder, as do goats and sheep, alpacas, and smaller animals like rabbits and guinea pigs. Hay provides nutrition and fiber that keeps their digestive system functioning. Animals that graze freely where there is adequate pasture don’t require supplemental hay. Animals without access to pasture rely on you to supply all the hay they need in their diet.
Types of Grass Used for Hay
You can make hay from numerous types of grass, including orchard grass, timothy, and bermudagrass. You can also use legumes like alfalfa or red clover. The best types of grass to use for hay depend on your area.
Timothy is a cool-season grass that thrives in cool, moist areas. Timothy hay is a popular grass hay that is fed to a variety of animals around the world, especially cattle and horses. It contains low protein and high fiber, which makes it easily digestible.
Pros and Cons of Alfalfa
Some people who keep racing horses give them Alfalfa pellets to add calories and protein to their diet. Alfalfa pellets are easy to feed, reducing the amount of supplementation horses need. You should give horses Alfalfa pellets in addition to their hay, not in place of it. In other words, feeding alfalfa pellets will not reduce your need for fresh, high-quality hay. It is a way of giving some horses the additional energy they need to optimize their performance.
Alfalfa isn't a good choice for all horses. Because it has a lower fiber content than grass hays, it can increase colic. Most horse owners prefer to keep less active horses from being over-energized.
What It Takes to Grow Your Own Hay
There is a lot that goes into producing your own hay, starting with planning your hay field. One of the first things to consider is how much hay you need and the number of acres you need to grow. However, many factors contribute to the final yield that is nearly impossible to predict. For example, your average growing system, the types of forage you grow, and the fertilization methods you use.
The number of acres you have can also impact your yield. When growing legumes, you need more space to rotate your crops instead of growing them in the same area year after year. Mixing your crop with legumes and grass will help balance the nutrients in the soil. Growing legumes adds nitrogen to the soil that the grasses need to grow.
When mixing hay types, you need to combine those that will come off at about the same time. For the best results, combine timothy with red clover and alfalfa with orchard grass.
How to Estimate Your Needs
Like estimating yield, determining the exact amount of hay you need to grow is difficult. Use your best guess based on the type of animals you feed. For example, a stabled horse will eat 15 or 20 pounds of hay each day.
If you are just starting out, base your needed yield on an estimated 100 bales per acre for the first cutting. Keep in mind that the yield for sequential cuttings is typically far less. If this doesn’t produce the amount of hay your need, you might need to supplement with purchased hay.
Create Healthy Soil
It takes the right soil to grow good-quality hay. Take a soil sample and have it tested. Nitrogen is needed to grow grass hay, while legumes require phosphorus and potassium. To get the soil to the appropriate pH, you might need to add limestone several months before seeding.
Moisture and pests are the two biggest threats to growing quality hay. Either can greatly reduce the quality of the hay.
After cutting hay, it must cure on the ground to reduce the moisture content. Depending on the weather conditions, this can take two days or longer. You must choose a time when there is virtually no chance of rain. The biggest impact wet weather has on the hay is after it is raked into wind rolls prior to baling.
Some pests, including alfalfa weevils, can destroy an entire crop of hay. You might need to use insecticides to preserve the crop. Another problematic pest is the blister beetle. While they don’t do a lot of damage to the hay crop, they are very deadly to horses. When they occur in your field, baling hay from those sections where the beetles are present isn’t recommended. You should cut them down early and not include them in the hay that you bale.
When Buying Hay Might Be a Better Option
Even if you have a small number of animals, growing hay might be a good option. If you meet all the requirements, you can make a profit by selling what you have extra. Otherwise, you will benefit from just buying the hay that you need. Buying hay is also a better option than growing your own when you:
- Have limited land resources to devote to hay production
- Don’t have the free time to devote to putting up hay
- Only have a few animals, and there’s no market for excess hay
- Lack storage space
- Don’t own the equipment required for seeding, cutting, and baling hay
- Have limited access to labor
People often think that growing their own hay is cheaper than buying it when the opposite may be true. You can purchase a high-quality bale of timothy hay or orchard grass at a lower cost than you might spend on growing it. Also, the unpredictability of quality and yields makes it impossible to always get the best quality hay for your animals. When you buy it, there is no question about how much hay you feed your animals.
If you fit somewhere in between, a third option is hiring a contractor to handle your hay production for you. This method is frequently used by large farms and ranches that have some of the necessary resources but not all of the time or equipment growing hay requires.
Shop Grange Co-op for Hay, Grass Seed, and More
Access to good quality hay is important to your farm or ranch and the health of your animals. At Grange Co-op, we have products to support your operation, no matter how small or large. If you need expert advice, contact our customer service team. They are happy to answer any of your questions.