Summertime and the Livin’ is… Not Always Easy

Okay so it’s not summertime just yet.  Technically, we are still in the season of spring.  But with a day like today that’s this hot, this humid – it sure seems like summer.

Even though summer for most people means holidays, beach and pool time, family time, etc., it is also quite busy. Not often do you hear someone lamenting on how boring and non-busy their summer was come September 1st.  In fact, I’d hedge a bet that many folks – especially those with school aged children – actually look forward to September and the beginning of a new school year, when they know (from previous years’ experience) that their lives will thus return to some state of normalcy.  Kids back in school, summer child care done, summer holidays and trips done, lack of routine over with.  Normal.

Summer is a period where the otherwise regular routine alters, when things are a little less rigid than they are the rest of the year.  Easy livin’, as they say.

This is not so for farmers, as I’ve come to notice.

As most of you probably know, spring time is a really busy time of year for farmers.  This is because, if a farmer has land to plant (which most farmers do), spring time is when to do it.  How busy a farmer is during spring planting will depend on how many acres he has to plant, and who does that planting.  Some farmers hire someone else to plant specific crops for them, others will rent equipment from another farmer and do it themselves.  But no matter which way its done, life on the farm is still gogogo until spring planting is finished.

But what happens after that?  What happens in the summer time, when all the crops have been put in and it’s rained once or twice (hopefully more than that)?

Well, we wait.

Please don’t confuse ‘waiting’ with ‘sitting on our asses doing nothing all day.’  When I say waiting, I mean that while we wait for crops to grow, we do everything else on our To Do list.  Kind of like mixing up the salad or some mashed potatoes while the casserole bakes in the oven, only it takes longer and is a lot more complicated.

On our farm, each day revolves around our chore schedule and milking times.  We milk twice a day, first at 5:30 AM and again at 5:30 PM.  After that, do we just sit around and drink coffee, watching the corn pop up in rows before heading back out to the barn to do it all over again?  Not exactly.

Let’s see.  There’s machinery to fix and maintain in order to prep for harvest (we’ll get to that in a minute).  There is feed to mix, cows to move, calves to register (with Holstein Canada), fences to mend, manure to spread, vets to assist, financial books to balance, cows to breed, lawn to cut, barns to fix (like the barn door that the cows blasted off the hinges on their way out to pasture last night… *le sigh*), flower beds to weed, kids to look after, houses to keep and about 17 million other things that need doing.  The list is pretty much endless.

That endless list becomes even longer when harvest begins.  Hay season is typically first and starts right about now (funk soul brutha – sorry, I couldn’t help myself).  We usually get about 3 cuts of hay, sometimes 4, per field, per season. The number of cuts of hay you get from each field refers to how many times you’ve cut down the hay during a given season; once you cut and bale the hay on a field, it grows back so you can cut and bale it again.  And again.  And (maybe) again.  The more hay you can harvest from your fields, the better, because hay is expensive to buy but a neccessity for animals in terms of an ideal, nutritionally balanced diet.  We’ve had to buy hay for the cows before because we ran out over one winter.  It was exceptionally cold that year so the cows were eating more hay (eating more keeps their digestion system moving, which keeps their blood flowing which keeps them warmer).  The thing is, the more you cut a field of hay, the less nutritionally dense it is.  So your last cut (the 3rd or 4th time you’ve cut it) usually isn’t the best hay you’ll ever have.  But it’s still a good option to feed your cows, and the first cut or two are usually awesome enough to balance everything out.

So what’s involved with harvesting hay?  Several things.

First, it has to be dry.  It’s poor practice to go into a hay field during or after a rain storm and cut it.  If you do, there is a higher risk of the hay not drying properly and becoming moldy, dusty and just generally yucky (yep, that’s a technical farm term right there – yucky).  Plus, there’s that thing about being out in the middle of a large, flat surface of land during a storm.  That probably has some lightning happening.  So yeah.  There’s that.

Once the hay IS dry enough, it’s cut down with a mower-conditioner that’s attached to the back of a tractor.  The mower-conditioner allows for the adjustment of things like the height of the stalk left in the ground and the width of the line of cut hay.  The recommendations are that you leave 3 or 4 inches of stalk for the cut hay to “rest” on in the field while it’s drying, in a row (a windrow, if you want to get technical) of up to 12 feet wide.  These are conditions that OMAFRA deems ideal for drying the hay.

You can’t bale wet hay just like you can’t cut wet hay.  Baling wet hay will result in mold, dust and even spontaneous combustion.  These are obviously things farmers want to avoid when managing their hay crop!  But the problem is, especially where we live (Southwestern Ontario), getting a decent number of dry, hot, relatively breezy, sunny days in a row during the summer is pretty hard.  The two things that have the greatest affect on hay drying are wind speed and humidity.  A super hot, sunny, windy, humid day?  Not good for drying hay.  A cloudy, cool, windy, zero-humidity day?  Not good for drying hay.  The perfect conditions for drying hay hardly ever come around which is why this time of year can be pretty stressful for farmers.

Part of that stress, though, happens when the hay is actually ready to bale.  Do you have a baler?  Can you borrow, hire or rent one?  How big/heavy do you want your bales?  What shape should they be baled into (large round? large square? small square?)?  Where will you store them?  Outside or in?  Plastic wrap or netting?  What’s the moisture level when they bale?

Who knew that baling hay involved as many decisions as buying the perfect pair of shoes?

We typically bale our hay into large round bales and store them outside in long rows on the perimeter of other fields. They are wrapped in net wrap for protection from the elements, and will stay where they’re stored until we zip back with a tractor to pick one up when we need it.  Our cows receive their hay as part of their daily ration of feed; we have a huge chopper that chops up an entire round bale into small, 3 or 4 inch pieces so we can mix it in with the feed.  It’s much easier and less labor intensive to feed hay like this (for us, anyway) and the cows eat more of it, too.

You might think me a little strange, but I do love the view across a large, open field that’s filled with round hay bales. There’s something serene and peaceful about it, I suppose.  It’s just cool to me to see everything that’s put into it – weather and machinery and sweat and sunshine – all wrapped up into a tight, heavy, nutritious ball of awesomeness for the cows.

After all the hard work put into spring planting comes even more hard work for harvest on the farm, hard work that starts when most other people are starting their summer vacations.  There are no last-minute, mid-week summer road trips here!  But even though it’s hard work, it’s worth it.  You’re outside most of the time.  You’re being physically active.  You eat and sleep great after the day is done.  And you can really see the results of all your hard work, either right off as you bale first cut hay or well into the season as beans and, finally, corn crops are harvested. Sure, you need time management, humility, responsibility and patience (among many other things) for farming to be worth it.  But these are the lessons that harvest will inevitably teach me, lessons that, as far as I’m concerned, are completely worth waiting for.

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