Better than snowballs

July 28, 1996|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE de GRACE -- It'll be better than snowballs, Pop used to say when we were putting up second-rate hay.

He meant that come wintertime the cows would eat it anyway, and if they were hungry enough they'd be glad to get it. So even if wasn't as nutritious, as rich in color and as sweet-smelling as our best hay, it would still be worth the effort to get it into the barn.

I was thinking about that last Sunday afternoon as I baled 10 acres of mixed grasses that had been cut, rained on, dried, rained on again and bleached by the sun to a dull greenish brown. Yes, I supposed, it would be better than snowballs. Better to keep it than to sell it as mulch to the mushroom farmers.

The cows might turn their noses up at it when they first came in off pasture in the fall and were still feeling choosy about what they ate, but I could easily imagine them tearing into it on a frozen February morning with the sleet coming down. But raking and baling it now, especially on a Sunday, was dusty and tedious. Making nicer hay would have seemed less work.

On the whole, the weather around here this year has been especially favorable for most farm activities. It's been cooler than usual, and because of all the rain we have plenty of grass in the pastures. Corn is off to a great start and most people's soybeans look healthy.

But of course there's a downside to all that. Weeds are everywhere. The flies plaguing the cattle seem worse than in any summer I remember. And the frequent and unpredictable thunderstorms have made it difficult to produce high-quality hay.

We already have more than enough in the barn to feed our own livestock through the winter to come, but there probably won't be much of a surplus left over to sell. And, we don't need Adam Smith to tell us, that will inevitably mean higher prices paid by the people who have to buy it. That prospect in turn provides an incentive to frustrated producers to make all the hay we can when the sun does choose to shine.

Shining prettily

It was certainly shining prettily last weekend. Encouraged by a forecast of four or five clear days, we cut one of our two alfalfa fields on Saturday, expecting to rake it Monday morning after the dew dried, and then to bale it that afternoon.

This was the third time this summer we had cut that field, so the hay wasn't as thick as earlier in the year, but it promised to be of absolutely premium quality.

On Sunday morning, before I baled the grass hay that rain had nearly ruined, I ran the tedder over the alfalfa. The tedder is a machine which fluffs up freshly-cut or wet hay so that it can dry more rapidly. It's easy to operate, and because it doesn't require as close attention as do mowing, raking or baling, tedding allows the mind to wander, which may be why I usually enjoy it.

As I got under way, the morning was exquisite. The field is on a hilltop, and the quiet Sunday countryside seemed to roll away for miles. The sun was bright, the sky blue from horizon to horizon, and a cool north wind caught the hay as the teeth of the tedder flipped it into the air. The alfalfa looked rich and green as a pile of new bills.

On such a day, drying conditions are ideal. I thought at that moment there was no place I would rather be. With the humidity down, the clear gently moving air felt as though it belonged to a resort, perhaps in Canada. And I felt, too, as though I were on vacation. On an impulse I peeled off my shirt for a while, feeling the sun and wind on my skin as though I were a tourist walking by the sea.

I finished the field, went home for lunch, and then hooked up the baler. The chore of baling bad grass hay that afternoon didn't seem quite so onerous, what with all the good alfalfa hay in the other field lying curing in the sun. The only thing that troubled me was something in the air. There was a mistiness coming out of the west that had no business being there.

And of course that night it began to rain, gently at first and then harder. It rained all night, and much of the next day. The day FTC after that it rained some more, and the day after that it was cloudy. Out in the field the beautiful alfalfa lost its color as its nutrients washed slowly away.

We finally got it raked Wednesday and baled Thursday, three days after it should have been in the barn. And although it was no longer anything special, not hay to admire or to sell for high prices, it was clean and dry and didn't smell foul. Come winter, I expect the cows will eat it anyway. It'll be better than snowballs.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 7/28/96

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