Cool summer means haying havoc for farmers

Peggy Revell

Miserable weather has ruined plenty of summer plans so far this season, but it’s also spells trouble for local farmers when it comes to the quantity and quality of hay needed for their herds.
“It’s been horrible,” said Emo farmer Kim Jo Bliss, who also is a research technician at the agricultural research station there.
“There’s a lot of guys still trying to make first-cut hay and normally they’d be well into second cut, if not finished by now,“ she noted.
“It’s just been miserable.”
Along with the volume needed to keep cattle fed throughout the winter months, Bliss said this delay also has affected hay quality.
“Hay conditions just dramatically decrease as the hay gets older,” she explained, though noting that while dairy cows require high-quality hay at all time, beef cows generally can “do okay” on hay of lesser quality.
But at this time in the season, farmers are getting to the point where the hay being produced won’t meet just some of their basic needs, Bliss stressed, meaning it would need to be supplemented with other feed like grains.
Buying feed is a “huge cost,” she noted. Next to fertilizer and seeds, it is one of the highest expenses on the farm—and something people perhaps can’t afford.
“It’s a challenge,” agreed Pinewood farmer Amos Brielmann, who said they just finished cutting their first crop of hay in the middle of August.
“We’re just hauling the last first crop of hay out, and usually we like to be done cutting and baling this crop by the first days of July,” he noted.
“We’re practically four weeks late, and that means we don’t have a second crop.”
This past spring and summer have been the “worst conditions you could have” for growing hay, said Brielmann, with the cool, drier weather meaning “very, very slow growth.”
“We couldn’t really start early enough to cut hay because there was nothing there,” he recalled. “We are at least two weeks behind on the maturity of the hay, and then also when we started the first cuts of hay, we figured we were 50 percent of the normal crop.
“So what do you do? It costs a lot of money to cut hay, so we delayed it.”
Unfortunately, the cooler weather stuck around—as did erratic rainfall, Brielmann said.
“Every day you got a little sprinkle here, some rain here, and so on, so you couldn’t really cut hay,” he explained. “And if you had hay cut, it just got rained on, and you’ve got stuff ready to bale and then it gets rained on again.
“And now we’ve got four inches last week, four inches of rain, all at once,” he lamented. “We got more rain than in May and June, and now the fields are wet.”
“For me, I’ve been lucky enough to kind of be able to chip away at it,” said Alberton farmer Joe Sletmoen, who began his first cut at the beginning of August and still is working to finish it up.
He noted some of his fellow farmers started haying early and took some yield losses because of it, whereas he chose to wait—leaving him with better yields but meaning he’s only able to do “a little bit here and a little bit there.”
“If we had a week to 10 days of good weather, I’d probably be able to finish, and then the process of picking all the bales up and that,” he remarked.
The biggest effect of having to delay haying is the quality.
“For the guys in the area that run yearlings, it’s even more of an impact for them,” Sletmoen said. “But I think they’re most of the guys who started earlier, same with the dairy farmers.
“For me, with just keeping dry cows through the winter, I can get away with having a little lower-quality feed.
“But if I was trying to keep yearlings and running this kind of hay, I’d probably end up in trouble and probably end up having to feed a whole lot of grain to compensate.
“Like everything else, it costs you the same to make a good bale of hay to make a bad bale of hay, so if you have to add on the cost of buying grain, it can really affect your bottom line in a big hurry and take an already poor situation with the cattle prices and make it worse,” Sletmoen added.
Facing this kind of weather, Bliss said some farmers have started to make haylage.
“Which means they bail the hay fairly wet and they wrap them,” she explained. “If you’ve seen those big white tubes there in the field, that just means the hay has been baled wet and they’ve put them in there.
“It actually turns into silage, that’s what it does.
“But it’s costly,” she warned. “You have to have really good equipment, and it’s not a cheap feed.
“The plastic is expensive, it’s messy, all these things.”
“Haying was a hard go this year,” echoed Stratton farmer Ted
Zimmerman. “A lot of fellows are short of hay.
“I’ve got the haying done, but it was basically what you’d call stealing it off the field between rain showers and this and that,” he added.
“The grain crops that I’ve seen, most of them are fairly good,” Zimmerman continued. “But of course, it’s not in the bin yet. We still have to combine, and now it’s wet.
“So that’s going to create a problem possibly unless it starts to dry up fairly quick here.”
To make up for the shortfall in hay, Zimmerman thinks people will be culling cows this fall in order to match the size of their herds with the amount of hay they have.
“There will be some hay bought, of course, but I don’t think a lot of people are going to buy a fantastic amount of hay,” he said, adding he also doesn’t see people buying grain, although some may buy pellets to help extend the hay a little bit.
A “nice open fall” is one thing that could salvage the year a little bit for some farmers, Zimmerman noted.
“It isn’t abnormal for people to make hay right into the fall,” agreed Bliss. “It’s just sometimes that’s people’s management style, too, but right now there’s a lot of people that are still making hay that normally would have, probably, have their equipment put away right now.”
“I don’t want to see the rain in August or September,” Brielmann laughed. “It would be great if it would be nice and warm, and no rain anymore.
“That would be what we need.”
“If we had a decent September as far as my hay crop goes, I could be able to get it finished,” Sletmoen concurred.
But besides throwing off the haying, this summer’s poor weather also has meant other challenges.
“The biggest thing for me is my timeline,” Sletmoen explained. “I expected to be done haying pretty near a month ago and then I had all my other list of summer jobs that I expected to get done by this fall and some of that just isn’t going to get done because we haven’t had the weather to get other jobs done, which is discouraging.
“You can’t really do anything about the weather, you take what you get,” he reasoned.
“Through the delay of the harvest, we’re just always running behind,” echoed Brielmann. “So we might not be able to get the things done that we want to get done.
“So that’s a big problem.”
Brielmann had hoped to work some fields down and get them ready and prepared—something that’s had to be pushed into the fall because of the delay in hay cutting
And while crops of alfalfa should be cut before Aug. 20, they hadn’t touched their second crop as of yesterday.
It’s out there, it’s blooming. It’s really really, short and it’s blooming, and the food quality is down,” Brielmann said, adding he hopes to get it cut this week.
But he stressed alfalfa should be cut before Aug. 20 so that it has time to recover and store nutrients back into the roots—something that may not happen now because they’ve had to put off cutting the second crop.
Still, the cool weather wasn’t all bad news, Brielmann admitted.
“The one benefit there is with the cool spring—if you had enough pasture, if you had enough area—this was the year where you could actually manage your pasture reasonably well,” he explained. “Because the pasture wouldn’t mature too fast so you could easily move the cows through.
“So it was actually a good year for us that way.”
Zimmerman also is hoping his pastures that have been doing well in this weather can make some difference when it comes to offsetting the hay.
“I know, personally, what I’m hoping to do is I’m hoping not to have to feed a bale of hay until about first of November, which will stretch out my feed supply,” he said.
“That’s the plan right now, so hopefully it works!”
But it’s not a benefit Sletmoen has seen this summer.
“My pastures are taking a beating this year,” he remarked, noting he just had to move a bunch of cows after three days from a pasture that should have lasted more than a week.
“That’s where I’m really noticing [a difference] this year,” he said. “I think I’m going to end up starting to feed early, which isn’t something I’m too crazy about doing.”
Altogether, this haying this season has been a “huge struggle” and a stressful situation, said Bliss.
“It’s something you need. You need to have feed to have these animals,” she stressed.
It may appear to be relatively simple for those just driving by and seeing the bales made in the field, but it’s actually a complicated process, she noted.
Three weeks to a month of hot, dry weather are ideal for haying, Bliss explained, but conceded that since that type of weather seldom happens, at least three or more days of hot, dry weather works, too.
“Because these guys aren’t cutting lawns, they’re cutting 600 or 1,200 acres, so it’s a big job,” she remarked.