Sun Pony Ranch

Diary of novice (clueless) ranch owners

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Hey, Hay everywhere, but not a bale to buy

Seems ridiculous, but we still are far from getting our arms around this whole hay buying thing. We've never had to be the purchaser of the hay before, but I thought I knew the issues around it. You want hay that hasn't been rained on or else it molds. Hay that is green and fresh smelling. There are different types of hay that have different nutritional aspects. We have to buy enough hay now to last the winter - or else risk not finding any good hay still available next spring before the first cutting happens. This means we have to have a lot of hay storage. All very manageable things, right? So we thought.

We asked a friend how she went about buying hay. Her advice was that when you find a good source, of course you stick with them. You need to try out multiple sources to find one you consider good. But really, she said, "sooner or later you'll find a field that is beautifully grown and that is where you'll start buying your hay."

HUH? We didn't even know what alfalfa was when we moved onto the ranch... and then it was only by walking out into what the sellers said was our alfalfa field to get familiar. Actually, the horses helped considerably when we took them out to hand graze - as they dragged us from one alfalfa plant to the next.

But assuming we now can recognize an alfalfa field and a grass hay field - making the connection between the field and the owner is not always a simple manner. Some sellers put up signs with their phone numbers, but a lot do not. Heck, many fields aren't even for sale.

I just called a reference and asked if he had any hay available. "Not just right now." was the response. He said it in such away that I asked if they would have some shortly? "Ya never know. You might call back in a few days". Few days? He doesn't even know within a few days if he'll have hay or not? What a crazy business.

Part of the problem is that it has been an incredibly rainy summer and fall. To harvest hay it needs to be cut, dried, turned over to dry on the other side, baled, then the bales picked up. This is somewhere about a 7 day process. But we really haven't had any 7 day periods without rain - and rain during any of this process is problematic.

Take our neighbor who cuts our tinsy-bit of alfalfa when he cuts his. The night it got baled it poured down rain. Dave ran out the next day and picked up the 15 bales our side produces and stuck them under our barn overhang. But they were already wet, so we knew we'd have to feed them quickly. Not 5 days later we were noticing that when we cut the bales open they were warm inside! Talk about a disconcerting experiend. The fermentation had begun. Just for education sake Ginger and I then went to look at the other bales - that were still sitting in the field. We rolled them over and found the bottoms nearly entirely covered with black slimy mold.
And what happens if you bale too soon? We've run into this too - the guy had baled a little soon because he was rushed by the coming rain storm. Only that hay hadn't dried completely. We bought 6 bales so that we could evaluate it closely at home, and while it isn't nearly as bad as the rain soaked hay, it too is fermenting due to the water content left in the plants.

The second factor we've just learned about is that the longer you allow the alfalfa to grow, the higher protein content it has. Sounds good? Not so much - it actually can get to be far too rich for horses. (This hay is intended for cattle) This can be judged somewhat by examining the maturity of the blooms in the bales, but this really isn't sufficient. Only laboratory testing can be definitive. Some sellers advertise that they have gotten lab results on their hay - but I'm sure we'll be paying more for that.

So, the final lesson in this post - why can cows tolerate much richer, as well as poorer-quality (i.e. moldy) hay than horses? The last time the vet was out he explained it to us. Cows are ruminates - meaning in essence that they don't digest their own food.

Stay with me here - sounds weird, but makes sense eventually.

Rather, the bacteria in their stomachs feed off of the food they ingest, and the cow lives off of the by products from the bacteria. And the bacteria, as we all know, turn out to be a pretty hardy bunch regardless of what forage you give them. Fascinating! Horses, and humans, however, have to break down their own food and live off of the results from that. Part of the result is that we have much more touchy digestive systems than the ruminants.

Anyways, I think the upshot is that this weekend we purchased a few bales of what looks to be great grass / alfalfa mix hay from a friend of a friend. As this was from her second cutting this year - harvested approximately 8 weeks ago - if it hasn't fermented yet it isn't going to. Secondly it's been barn stored, so though it is going to cost a little more than else where ($4), we are just eager to put this hurdle behind us.

Next hurdle - locate a trailer to use to go pick up about 200 bales, and then storing it for the winter.



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