Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Beyond alfalfa hay

After who knows how many years of harvesting well washed hay in Juune, Dave and I are considering other options. All month we worry about the hay. Should we cut now? Dave has to go to work in three weeks, two weeks, one week. But it keeps raining every day, every other day, every third day. Should we cut now? Should we turn the hay that has been beaten into the ground by rain? Should we turn it again?

We once read that you should cut the hay at the best time for protein, 10% bloom, and not worry about a little rain. But in this part of Minnesota, a little rain always seems to be followed by a little more and then a little more.

This year Dave took the first three week of June off from work so that we would be sure to be done with haying by the time he had to leave. We cut the last field June 17 and put the last bale in the barn June 19, 33 hours before he left for work.

There must be a better way to do it.

So, we are exploring the idea of prairie hay. Prairie grasses have deep roots, better to with stand hot dry summers and cold dry winters. They sequester carbon dioxide, one of the major green house gasses. They hold the soil extremely well to both wind and water erosion. It seems like planting our hayfields to prairie grasses might be a good idea.

But we don’t know enough. We don’t know when the grasses are best harvested for hay, how palatable that hay is to sheep, or how nutritious it is. We don’t even know that our old hay fields are fertile enough for prairie grasses to grow well.

So today we began our research. Dave started studying palatability and nutritional quality. I looked for seed sources and prices ($1200 per acre at one site). And this evening, we walked the restored prairie in the waterfowl production area south of our farm, in some places, I was neck deep in grass. The sun was low on the horizon, setting the tiny yellow flowers of one of the grasses aglow. Big swaths of sweet yellow clover frosted the hillsides with a light yellow haze. A turkey scuttled away , moving surprisingly rapidly for such a big bodied bird. A yellow and black meadowlark sang its heart out on a nearby willow. We picked flowers and grasses to take home for identification.

After we got home I spent an hour bent over samples and identification guides.
We found big bluestem, only about a foot tall, and Gray’s sedge in bloom. We found white campion and crown vetch and tall meadow rue, all blooming. The wild rose, the Showy Goldenrod and the Joe Pye weed aren’t even budding yet. We will have to walk this piece of land again and again this summer, learning the plants that thrive there and when they bloom. We will talk to hay experts and prairie experts and sustainable farming experts. Only then will we have some idea of the possibilities that prairie hay presents to us.

No comments:

Post a Comment