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Growing hay (advice for a total newbie)

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  • Growing hay (advice for a total newbie)

    This is my first agricultural endeavor, so please be patient with my complete ignorance.

    My family recently purchased 80 acres of virgin land in central Missouri. The plan is to hay it somewhat recreationally while we get our feet wet in the world of agriculture... and then eventually it will be the family farm, with horses, goats, chickens, etc...

    Right now, the "pasture" area is a mixture of native grasses, weeds, johnson grass (eek!), and wild blackberries. My inclination is to disk the whole area we plan to use for hay, and start from scratch with organic seeds, and grow alfalfa or timothy or orchard grass... or some blend of the above that I would feel comfortable feeding to my own horses (because that's what I plan to do someday!) I never ever ever want a single toxic chemical to touch my beautiful virgin land (or my ponies' lips)! However... my father (the actual landowner) is a red-blooded Amurrican who loves his Roundup, and thinks I'm silly for paying extra for organic food. He thinks disking would be too much work and too expensive... His plan is to overseed with red clover, spot treat the johnson grass, and voila! hay.

    ??? Am I being irrational about the whole organic thing??? How do you guys feel about exposing your horses to herbicides? Is it really safe? Is disking really that difficult/pricey? (we don't have our own tractor yet, so right now we have to hire out all the labor until we have our own stuff) I just think it's a shame to start with land that has never been touched by toxic chemicals, and then spray poison all over it. But... I don't really know anything about farming, so... maybe I'm being unreasonable.


  • #2
    I don't know about Missouri but up here in the northern
    reaches of the Mississippi River Valley, very little herbicide
    is used on hay fields. Rather than Roundup, consider plowing
    the field and then planting whatever type of hay you want
    that grows well in your area. NOT red clover, you will never get it out of the field and you will have trouble with slobbers whenever there is an extra wet period during the growing season. Red clover has what farmers call "hard seed" which means it will reseed itself year after year and you will have a difficult time eliminating it from the hayfield when/if you decide you don't want it.

    By plowing you will bury many of the weeds. When the new hay crop emerges, if you cut it before the weeds go to seed, they will gradually become fewer and fewer in the field. You may never have a perfectly weed-free stand, but it will become closer to that over time. Without any herbicide being used. You probably will need to fertilize the fields and your family may well prefer non-organic fertilizers just on the basis of cost.

    Speaking of cost, you will find that without your own implements to cut, rake and bale the hay, you are at a disadvantage as farmers who can be hired for the task (called custom hire in my area) generally want to do their own fields at the optimal time and will only do your when their own are done. Which usually means your crop is a bit overmature when they get around to doing it. And custom hire charges are such that you can almost buy hay as cheaply as pay to have your hayland cropped. Might be better to start by seeing if you can find a farmer that will make hay off your land on shares with your family. Then you generally only have to pay for seed and fertilizer.
    Robin from Dancing Horse Hill
    Elmwood, Wisconsin


    • #3
      Tamara would be best qualified to discuss this, but the short answer is that if you want to start from scratch on 80 acres you'd best have some deep pockets.

      Is the land fenced? If not you'll need to do that to keep interlopers from eating what you've sown.

      At a minimum you'll require a tractor, mower, rake, tedder, baler, and one or more bale wagons. Used equipment is cheaper than new but if it's too "used" it will break down more frequently (and often at a most inopportune time, like when the thunderstorms are moving in and you have just a few hours to get the hay up).

      If you decide to till you'd likely be better off to hire that done. That way you won't have to invest in a plow, disk, etc. Robin has told you true about "custom cutting" but tilling is less "time critical" and you can probably pay cash to have that done.

      After the tilling is done you can rent a drill from your local Soil Conservation office (probably; if they don't have one they can tell you where you might get one).

      Before you start you'd best do a round of soil sampling so you'll know what kind fertilizer and the level of liming you'll have to do. Then consult with your local County Extension Agent to talk about the best grasses for your area.

      The Agent will also discuss the use herbicides. In the warmer climates you have a much longer growing season. That's good for grasses and weeds. This means the "aggressive mowing" method that might work quite well in Upstate NY or the UP of MI or northern WI might not do the job in Central MO.

      Agriculture is the most local of all pursuits. Consult with locals to get the best advice. The County Agent, Soil Conservation service, etc. is free (you already paid for it in your taxes). Co-Ops and seed vendors can also provide valuable information (but they also want to sell you stuff). Ditto for tractor and equipment vendors.

      Before you spend a nickle on anything you'd best sit down with somebody knowledgeable and your yellow pad and cost out what you want to do. I'll bet money you'll find that buying your hay and using the land for grazing will be a better deal.

      Mangalarga Marchador: Uma Raça, Uma Paixão


      • #4
        Let me know when you find something that will finally kill Johnson Grass. We have a couple of miles of state highway road front, and while it's great that they cut the grass, they have spread Johnson grass all along the roads around here. I've been trying to keep it cut back before it develops seed heads, but it's a losing battle. So far I've kept it out of the pastures, but I haven't found anything that will knock it back for more than a year along the roads.


        • #5
          Robin@DHH - great response! Hay is a difficult crop - it really truly is. All those people wanting weed and thistle free hay without chemicals - HA! Sorry. It will take a long time, and many hours out there with a machete and human labor. Not saying it's not worth it, but prepare yourself!

          I understand your apprehension to use chemicals, but glyphosates (active ingredient in RoundUp) IS rather safe. Glyphosate has no residual effects on soil and plants (Some micronutrient tie up has been found in certain areas of the country, but this can be solved with throwing a micro blend into a fertilizer application. You won't have any issue with the one application you need in this case.) So if you were to spray off the existing plants, and plant in with a new seeding, there will be nothing in or on your new plants, giving you a clean slate to start with.

          Definitely do your research ahead of time. Schedule a time to sit down with a local agronomist - I suggest both a retail agronomist, and a state extension agronomist. They can offer you different perspectives and theories of management. Use your resources!


          • #6
            You will NEVER get rid of Johnson Grass without serious Roundup and THEN it is the biggest challenge you will ever face.

            Expect to invest about 3-5 years of very close mowing and excessive Roundup use.

            @ Tom King-I have a system that is working on my 10 acres. I have been working with an ag professional for 3 seasons now and he has been recommending my 'system' to other clients because it is the only one he says he has seen make any progress.

            Let me know if you are interested in the boring monotonous details.


            • #7
              Thanks LMH. I'm looking for a one shot deal. I'm sure the road cutters will continue to strew seeds every year. I just want to be able to keep it from developing seed heads without us having to cut it in between the state guys.

              Arsenal is showing some promise, but I didn't time it right this year. I'm ready to try Tordon K next, but you need a license to spread it on other peoples land. It's supposed to even be able to kill Kudzu.


              • #8
                You can also use Roundup on a wick to kill only the taller Johnsongrass, and not the shorter grass species.

                Truly though-- if you want to make great hay and get the most bang for your buck, you can't do it without herbicides. Roundup and 2,4-D are perfectly safe for horses...safer than many weeds you'll get otherwise. Once your fields are clean, you won't need to apply herbicide often.
                “A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.”
                ? Albert Einstein



                • #9
                  Maybe this is a dumb question, but say the OP sprayed, do you NEED to disc? Couldn't you just drill the seed in the spring? I saw a drill (maybe they are all this way--I have no idea) that had a cutting disc, then the drill, then a roller--sort of all the steps in one.

                  I was just thinking ecologically that would be better. See:

                  DIY Journey of Remodeling the Farmette: http://weownblackacre.blogspot.com/


                  • #10
                    The following is based on my experience haying 50 acres of Orchard/Timothy in SE PA.
                    All things being equal producing good hay is labor intensive and one of the most difficult crops to get right. As the saying goes, only cut as much as you can afford to loose. A flash unexpected rain storm will ruin the entire cutting. And you still have to get it out of the field and dispose of.
                    The nuts and bolts are as follows;
                    Organic is all well and good especially for human produced food. Personally I think a lot of it is over blown but to each their own. It is expensive because it requires more labor and lower yields in most cases. I think it is unnecessary for hay because by and large if managed well herbicides (for weed control) are only occasionally needed , pesticides are unnecessary at least in this neck of the woods. You will have to fertilize, either every year or every couple of years. The primary ones are, nitrogen, potassium and lime. The cost of the first two has pretty much doubled in the last few years. The amount needed depends on the quality of the soil. Being located in an Ag area our soil is quite good. But to maintain a good stand we have to spend around $4-5,000+ every other year on 50 acres. Though we would do better every year. When we bought this farm the outer 50 acres had been leased to a tillage farmer for crops. It had been planted with an “over crop” of winter rye when we closed on the property. Because we were still living in another state we contracted the work. We had the rye tilled under in late March and the fields were floated which breaks up the dirt clods and prepares the seed bed. If done right it will also level the surface. Something that doesn’t seem that important standing on the ground but will be, if not, when you and your equipment are constantly being bounced around hour after hour. It takes its toll on the equipment and reduces ground speed at which you can operate. To seed 80 acres of Orchard grass at around $200 per 100 lbs I am guessing it will cost at least $12-15,000 for seed. Depending on how you soil tests I am guessing around $5-8,000 for fertilizer. Then add on labor. To do our 50 acres in 2005 it cost around $22,000. But because it had been used for a number of years for corn, wheat, soybeans we did not have a weed problem to deal with. A total kill if done in the right part of the season and done right should give you the desired results. After waiting the recommended time you will need to find some one with a grass seed drill which I am told saves on seed and cost of preparation. I understand your feelings on the use of Roundup but they are a bit unfounded as others have pointed out when used judiciously and it’s environmental impact is minimal. Though the cost of killing off 80 acres with Roundup maybe more expensive then tilling under. Because Johnson grass is rhizomes species and when the roots are cut or split up and it will still grow. Like cutting/splitting up Hosta plants. To get rid of it organically I think you will have to dig it up or repeatedly close mow until it dies. If you disc the filed you will have to float it, broadcast seed and then roll it. I would keep the clover to a minimum. It spreads quite easily and is very hard to dry down with short weather windows and higher humidity, above 50-60% and spoils the bales made in that section. So, after spending $25-30,000 to prepare and plant and had good weather so you have a strong germination. You will need the following equipment; It is always great to start with new equipment but it is very pricey. Used;
                    Tractor/s; $15-20,000 +/-depending on the size of the equipment used. A small discbine needs I am guessing around 45 HP at the PTO, that’s probably around 60 hp over all. For 80 acres you will need a second tractor that can be smaller to run the tedder and or rake while the other one is either cutting or baling. Weather windows are often short around here and I don’t cut more then 10-15 acres at a time. Depending on humidity and sun it takes a minimum of 3 days running 2 tractors from cut to bale and in the barn and that is using 4 wagons.
                    To cut it I like disc bines a decent used one 9-10 ft wide, around $3-10,000+ depending on make and condition.
                    A small square baler like a New Holland 570 with a bale thrower, 10 years old or so will cost around $8-10,000 depending on condition.
                    Tedder, wider the better, 16 ft New Holland, $2,500 to $5,000 depending on age and condition.
                    Rake, wider the better, a 9ft rotary $3-5,000
                    Hay wagons- at least 2 the more the better. Remember you have to have at least 2 people to unload one while the other is being filled. The wagons we use are 18X10, $3-5,000 each. I recommend 4 wagons so if weather is coming in you can bale as much as possible unload what you can and put the baled wagons in the barn or tarp.
                    And you need a place to put the hay up in. Even 20 acres needs quite a large building. Stacking and tarping does doesn’t work to well. Remember used equipment breaks and unless you have a good and close farm field service people it may not get fixed until after a rain storm.
                    Making good hay is an art and acquired skill that takes several years of screwing up to get a feel for it. Be prepared to loose a lot until you get a knack for it. 80 acres of a good stand will make a heck of lot of hay from each cutting all things being equal. The best way to sell it is to discount it and sell by the ton right out of the field or by the wagon. Cuts down on labor and time. Making hay is extremely rewarding and tangible. But very difficult to get right. Anyone that complains about the cost of a nice bale of hay has never made any. There’s another saying that rings true; it’s a lot easier to put up good hay then bad.


                    • #11
                      TTP, I didn't look at the link, but your description is how drills work.


                      • #12
                        Agree with the others that for a hobby farm like yours, it doesn't make sense to invest in all the haymaking equipment. Aside from the technical knowledge and equipmt, you'd also need a lot of schedule flexibility in your "real" job, to be able to work around the weather.

                        Lots of different arrangements can be made; one of our neighbors bales our field in exchange for half the hay. Giving up half my hay actually means that I have to supplement my winter hay stores by buying additional hay from someone else. Which seems weird, but the deal works out great for me:
                        my field is all grass, so the "extra" hay I buy is an alf mix, to add a little more protein to their diet.
                        The hay I give up to my neighbor is worth it, to me, because he makes a great bale, takes great care of the fields, they're mown regularly, so they're nearly weed-free without needing herbicides, etc. And he's a good neighbor.
                        When you don't have a good, reliable custom baler, it is soooo frustrating. You've got perfect hay-making weather, and your field is READY TO BE BALED NOW DAMMIT! and you see fields all around you raked into nice beautiful windrows or already baled -- but your hay guy is nowhere to be found. He's on someone else's field, his baler quit working, his hay rack needs new tires etc etc. (My husband used to call it "hay envy" because I'd stare longingly at other baled fields as we drove around. He's like, you know, most women get jealous about jewelry, or maybe looks. No, my wife gets jealous about piles of dead grass. It's funny in hindsight but, man, it's kinda stressful.)