Hay, Hay, My, My

...and on the eighth day God created the horse in perfect image, to romp, graze, gallop, play and make manure wherever it darn well pleases, in divine grace.

One of my favorite smells in the whole world is a fresh field of newly mown hay. Mm, Mm, this heavenly sweet smell has filled many of my summer days with an esoteric, olfactory experience while driving past a field or better yet, walking through it.

Where on earth would you rather be?

Man’s relationship with horses probably started with man eating horses rather than feeding them. Bones of thousands of horses, estimated to be at least 20,000 years old, were found near a rock shelter in Solutre, France. These bones were believed to come from animals for food.

There is no specific date as to when the horse was domesticated. Some historians estimate that it took place around 3000BC in west-central Asia. The first "Horsemen" probably did little in the way of feeding except to allow their horses access to forage. Alfalfa is thought to be the first cultivated forage fed to horses by man. It was carried into Greece by Xerxe and the Persians during their invasion in 490BC. Alfalfa was planted to raise forage for the war horses.

After the Romans conquered Greece in 146BC, they then took the alfalfa back to Rome with them.

Columbus took alfalfa to the West Indies and the Spanish explorers carried some with them to South America, where it was grown to great extent. Though it was cultivated somewhat in colonial times, alfalfa was not a very popular crop. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both tried to raise alfalfa, but they were unsuccessful.

Perhaps the lack of knowledge about pH soil requirements was the problem. An 18th Century article stated, "Attempts to grow alfalfa in the eastern states have generally ended in failure." As recently as 1906, one writer stated that alfalfa was a "new" crop to New England.

The Spaniards brought alfalfa to southern California with them, but the driving force behind alfalfa production in the West was the seed brought by the ‘49ers who had seen the rich fields in South America during their travels around Cape Horn from the East Coast to the gold mines. Alfalfa growers quickly spread from California to other western states. Vast amounts of alfalfa were being produced out West while back East it was little known. In 1900 only 1% of alfalfa was being grown east of the Mississippi River. (1)

The value and feeding of alfalfa for horses has been debated for years. Those ancient Horsemen supported the use of alfalfa and many writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have praised it. Still many others were and are opposed to it.

Some of the negative comments are that alfalfa causes horses to become overweight, lose endurance and strength, sweat too much and to have kidney problems. Rham’s Dictionary for the Farm of 1853 states that, " An acre of lucerne (alfalfa) will keep four or five horses from May to October. Horses can work hard upon it without any grain, provided it be slow work." (2)

Joseph E. Wing aka "Alfalfa Joe" was a strong advocate of the legume in 1912. He reported he fed alfalfa to all his horses and had no trouble with colic or kidney damage. He worked them moderately and thought that they liked it better than timothy. He could also save on grain, and believed that timothy hay was just a filler.

I do agree that horses prefer alfalfa to timothy, I am of the opinion that timothy is a good roughage and is safer to feed. Mature horses don’t need the high level of protein and energy contained in alfalfa.

Did you know horses will drink twice the amount of water while on alfalfa hay as while on timothy hay?

Timothy remains high on the popularity list for Horsemen. It is easy to harvest and is clean and bright. It should be cut in the pre- or early boot stage; after this the protein content rapidly declines and it becomes stemmy. Second cutting is best and you can get some awesome hay if weather is perfect and your hay help shows up on time. Later cuttings of timothy can lose nutrient quality.

Clover can be tricky as it is difficult to cure unless it is mixed with grass. It is considered a legume, as alfalfa, and is nutritious. There are five kinds of clover hay; common white, alsike, ladino, red and crimson. White and ladino clovers are generally grown in pastures. The other three have about 14 to 16 percent crude protein. Red clover is thought to cause "slobbers" in the horse, while harmless, it does not look pretty.(3)

Horses do have select preferences for food, just like people. They will choose and express their preferences when given the opportunity. Some Horsemen say that Kentucky bluegrass is preferred over other grasses grown in Pennsylvania, while in other tests timothy was preferred over orchard grass, tall fescue and canary (swamp) grass. Rye grass was least acceptable. Trefoil was not mentioned.

Trefoil is considered a legume and some hay growers market it in local newspapers. It can become stemmy and the leafy part falls off. It is a matter of the Horseman’s preference, here.

Hay is traditionally processed into bales. Most bales weigh 66.6 pounds but some weigh in at 40 to 50 pounds.

Growing conditions affect the quality of the hay. Drought results in fewer leaves and stunted growth while rainfall can leave it set in the field, thus growing over the hill. Too much rain can cause disease, also. Good fertilizer on fields causes higher nutrient content, more leaves on the plant and less fiber.

Plant stage at harvest time affects nutrient content. While the plant progresses from growing stage to reproductive stage, the digestibility, palatability and protein content declines. The stem to leaf ratio increases, therefore the plant has a higher fiber content. Maximum nutrient content occurs on legumes when a few flowers appear or are about to appear, while grass should be harvested when seed heads begin to appear.

Weather is a major factor in the harvesting and curing of hay. Conditions of sun and rain can reduce quality. Too much sun bleaches nutrients away, losing Vitamin A, and too much rain leaches them away like tea. Rain can beat a field to death, packing down the grass so it doesn’t dry properly. Moisture content of dried hay should be 12 to 18 percent. Up to 22 percent is acceptable, but be careful beyond 23 to 25 percent. If the hay is baled before proper drying, it will become moldy and have a musty smell to it.

Mold is toxic to horses. Never feed yellow, white or black hay as it is contaminated.

Cut hay should be crimped and tedded. Adjust your crimper to thickness or height of plant.

I am a strong advocate of the simple hay tedder. This device speeds drying time thus speeding up baling time and ensures all parts of the bale are nice and dry; minimal leaves are lost from plants.

After tedding, place in windrows for pick up. Do not leave hay in windrows for too long as this will dry it too much and leaves will be lost during baling.

May the sun shine upon you during this year’s harvest. Haymaking is a fine art; if all things don’t come together perfectly, things slide downhill real quick.

...Things such as equipment failure and the part being located 3 counties over, flat tires on the wagon after it is loaded with 250 bales, or your kicker deciding it’s Tuesday and it doesn’t kick bales on Tuesday, except when you turn to check the load behind you and turn back just in time to get hit in the face with a bale, can really get you to the nearest hay dealer in a hurry.

The rain suddenly clearing up when it’s not supposed to means you drop what you’re doing and start cutting, or the rain suddenly appearing when it’s not supposed to, while laying windrows means you’re skewered. What do they pay these meteorologists for, anyway?

Get out your Native American feathers or some pixie dust; magic may really be a part of the process. If these don’t work, stand on your head, whistle Dixie during the full moon while Sputnik is flying past and maybe, just maybe, you will have a successful harvest.

May the Hay gods smile upon you; harvest yours to the immortal words of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, "Happy Trails to You."

The aforementioned article is meant as a guideline and not agricultural analysis. Consult your local County Extension Office for professional advice on hay production and harvest.

1,2: "Horse Nutrition, a Practical Guide ," by Harold F. Hintz, Ph.D.

3: " Evans on Horses," 2nd Ed., by J. Warren Evans