Haying time: The critical cropping season

John Oncken
The smell of new-mown hay means summer is here.

The first sure sign of summer on Wisconsin farms may be the sweet smell of new-mown hay. It’s been the subject of stories and poems and has assumed a sort of romantic and nostalgic position among farmers, former farmers and city folks. 

New-mown hay means that nature has again began a harvest cycle while at the same time the planting season has just begun. It’s a good feeling to know that farming is on its way for another year—this in spite of world controversy, a pandemic and the many other challenges of life.

Haying with a fork

To me, freshly cut hay brings back memories of stacking hay on a wagon in front of a hay loader with sweat running down my face and chaff finding its way down my shirt. “Making hay” as a farm boy on that small Dane county farm was no fun. It was hard, dirty work that has long since become ancient history. (Except in maybe some of the Amish farming areas in Wisconsin  where a hay loader just like the one we used so long ago is being used.) 

Making hay is a major part of Wisconsin’s crop and livestock agriculture. In 2020, alfalfa and alfalfa mixtures for dry hay production is estimated at 2.69 million tons, up 27% from 2.11 million tons in 2019. Producers averaged 3.20 tons per acre, up from 2.40 tons per acre in 2019. Harvested acres, at 840,000, were down 40,000 acres from 2019. Alfalfa hay is often considered the queen of crops in most dairy cattle rations and the crop is constantly researched and upgraded in varieties, growing, harvesting ,storage and feeding.  

Thankfully the hay loader is long gone, replaced by the baler.

Major changes

Hay making has changed dramatically in the past few decades. It, as did all of farming, took a new road in the post World War II period in the 1950’s. The hay loader and loose hay gave way to the hay baler. (The baler actually goes back to 1853 but became practical and readily available in the 1950’s first as wire ties and later twine.  

Hay bales are still the choice of many farmers but the system has been automated. Although on rare occasions one can see farmers hand-loading a flat rack wagon, the self-loading pop-up, 50-lb. bale system has replaced the physical lifting. 

The big 800-1000 pound bales have found their niche.

The more modern baling systems involve the big round and square bales weighing in at 800-1,000 lbs. You have no doubt seen the cylindrical bales covered with white plastic lined up along fence lines or near the barn to be moved later with a tractor.

In the 1950’s, hay was usually sun-dried on the ground then run through the baler or forage chopper. The problem, many of the valuable leaves fell off and feed value went down.

Systems to allow hay to be harvested at a higher moisture level–thereby preserving the leaves and quality–appeared on the scene. I remember the name Herman Erfurth, a Mount Vernon area farmer, who came up with a system to dry hay in his barn. He patented his system and achieved a good deal of fame for his work. The Erfurth hay dryer system was in business from the late 1940’s until about 1960. 

The advent of the Harvestore changed haymaking as farmers learned they could cut hay in early June when it was at its nutritional peak.

Then came haylage                            

In the 1950’s and 1960’s the word “haylage” hit the farm scene with the advent of the Harvestore. This glass-lined blue steel storage unit sprouted on dairy farms across the land. Harvestores were not cheap but sold by the thousands and dairyland was dotted with the “blue bottles.” 

A.O. Smith, the Milwaukee-based manufacturer of Harvestore, had put together what many claim as the as most formidable ag sales force ever assembled.  

To get the highest quality forage, Harvestore insisted that the hay be cut early and farmers complied. (It’s often been said that the farmer’s did so to pay off the loan for the Harvestore.) I suggest the Harvestore as one of the ag marvels of the 20th century and a milestone that changed dairy agriculture forever. High moisture, cut by yje June 1st forage was here to stay. For the first time, high moisture alfalfa, could be harvested and stored at its peak nutrition stage. Cows loved it and the milk flowed.

As dairy herds grew in size, so did the need for quality feed and lots of it. Technology progressed from the hay loader, to the baler to the forage harvester, to the oxygen free sealed storage in just a few decades. At the same time, the development of high-speed mowers, big forage boxes and high- powered tractors came about. 

Non-farmers often ask about those long, white, plastic bags that they see lined up near the barn. In simplest of terms, they are much like a conventional silo laying on it’s side. They are air free and have proved to be a popular storage facility for haylage and corn silage. 

Field choppers are in common use all across dairyland.

Then the big bunkers

Yes, many smaller dairy herds farmers still use conventional upright concrete silos and Harvestores for feed storage and a lot of bales still go into barns, but dairy producers who milk large herds require speed in unloading and feeding and unloading of their forage. That’s where today’s big bunkers that are rapidly filled directly from  forage wagons or trucks. Double dual wheel tractors are often used to pack the bunker and Industrial end loaders fill Total Mixed Ration (TMR) wagons for feeding.

Visions of grandpa making hay with a hay loader and children playing in the hay mow might provide great memories but today  dairy farming and hay making is  all about speed, efficiency  saving labor and feed quality. It’s indeed, a science. 

About the only thing remaining from the hay making of my youth is the sweet smell of hay in the spring.  And, honestly, that’s OK by me.

John Oncken can be reached at 608-837-7406, or email him at jfodairy2@gmail.com.