By Cathy Hird

"Make hay while the sun shines." As good a piece of advice as "strike while the iron is hot," but also just as out of context for most of us. And it is not quite that simple. A farmer doesn't just head out to the field as soon as the sun shines.

First step: check the equipement. Apply grease. Examine U-joints, chains and belts. This year, when I attempted to tighten the chains on the haybine, they wouldn't. They'd been stretched beyond useful and needed to be replaced. By the time I had them off, my hands and arms were black with oil and grease. The machine did purr when I got the new ones on.

Second pause: wait until the hay has matured. Hay provides the best feed value when the alfalfa is in bud, and the timothy has just headed out. But no one can get all the hay cut and baled at that precise moment so we all start early and many of us finish with the alfalfa in flower.

When I do get to the field to cut, I apologize to every bobolink I see (they like to nest in the centre of the field). I tell them I left the edges for them and the pasture. If I waited until their nestlings fledged, I would be apologizing all winter to the sheep and weak lambs because by mid to late July, the hay is tough and not great feed.

The moment comes when the hay is good enough, and the sun shines. Next pause: check the forecast. In mid June, even in a dry year like this, the hay takes days to dry after its been cut. So you need a stretch of sun. Many of us were ready to cut a week ago Sunday, but the forecast predicted a 90% chance of 30 mm of rain for Thursday. So we waited. And of course, the next day the forecast predicted a 40% chance of 10mm, much less damaging. In the end, we got a trace on Wednesday

We would have cut that Monday, but we had arranged for the shearer to come. So Wednesday and Thursday, we got to the field and cut 20 acres. Many others kept cutting because now it looked like we would get a stretch of sunny days. For us, life interveened and we took a pause. We're part-time farmers, and we have a commitment this week that takes us away from the farm. So even if the sun shines, we won't be there to bale, so the uncut hay has to wait.

At the same time that we all plunged into haying, we watched our gardens and field crops nervously. An already dry spring was beginning to look like drought. Although we all worried this would be the case, the crumbly, dusty, dry ground has been a shock. Part of me prayed for rain even as we worked to make hay in the sunshine.

We expected to bale on Tuesday. On Saturday, as I headed off to perform a wedding, I recalculated when what we had cut would be ready to bale because the UV was so high. I knew it would dry quickly.

To get the crop to dry evenly, we may turn it the day before it is ready to bale. If it rains, raking is essential to get the bottom to dry. Patience is also essential as you let the sun dry the top layer and then turn it to dry the bottom. Again, we don't make hay as soon as the sun shines; we wait for the sun to do its job first. Wet hay in a bale equals mold, equals unhealthy, unhappy sheep.

Now that we do round bales, we leave the hay in the field for a few days, draw it in when there isn't cutting or baling to do. Those who do small square bales have to get it right into the barn to protect it from weather. Makes for long hot days in the sun.

It's true, we make hay when the sun shines. No one can bale or even draw in loose hay in the rain. But nature cannot be forced. The delicate process requires careful timing and patience. Nature does its thing, and we have to work with what we are given.
Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister, and writer living near Walters Falls.




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