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To hay or not to hay?  RSS feed

 
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Location: Ontario, Canada
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Late last fall we took ownership of 56 acres of mixed marsh, forest and fields. After a very long winter we’re finally making progress with some building work, garden beds, ducks, etc. We’re doing everything on a minimal budget and limited machinery. There’s absolutely nothing on the property so we have our work cut out for us this year!

For at least the past decade the 25 acres of fields have been rented to a local farmer who grew corn and soy beans with minimal input. One day we’d like to pasture mixed animals like cows, pigs and birds but that feels like a bit too much to handle this year with everything else.

So finally my question is this: do we get a local farmer to seed the fields with hay? He wants 4-5 years contract but I’m thinking by next year we’ll already want to start getting animals out on at least some of that pasture. Having him seed it for us seems like a decent way to get things converted to pasture though. He would also pay us rent. Alternatively, could we seed that much acreage by hand and not even get him involved? I’m worried he won’t do enough to add fertility back to the soil over those years and that I might want that pasture sooner. Or just let the fields regrow naturally this year and spend that time observing ready to make amendments the following year.
 
pollinator
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Location: Missouri Ozarks
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I'm assuming the "contract" implies he will be cutting and taking the hay.  If that's the case, I would suggest against it.  Removing hay is a great way of removing fertility from a farm, which I'd assume you don't want to do.

It would take time, but seeding 25 acres with an over-the-shoulder broadcast seeder is certainly doable.  Or you could rent a pull-behind model for quicker seeding.
 
pollinator
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My hunch is that if you practiced some sort of rotational grazing, those fields would quickly revert to native grasses and would quickly develop a thick multi-species ecosystem.  Yes, perhaps it would be good to initially seed the field, but nature has a way of bringing in its own cover-crops. 

If you haven't watched Joel Salatin or Gabe Browne, get on YouTube and watch them discuss pasture management.  Salatin talks about knowing the exact day you should put the cattle back on the grass.  If you do so too early or a week too late, you are missing the best nutrition and the optimum growth and replenishment of the grass.  Get a copy of his book "Salad Bar Beef". 

https://www.amazon.com/Salad-Bar-Beef-Joel-Salatin/dp/096381091X

If it were me, I'd rent a simple broadcast seeder and would sew a multi-species cover crop mix with lots of native grasses but also some broadleaf plants as well.  Once it's grown 2 feet tall or so, I'd mob-stock the pasture for just as long as it takes the cows to eat a third of the grass and knock two-thirds of it down.  Move them daily, if not 2 or 3 times a day.  You'll find that the grass quickly recovers.  By the end of the growing season, you should have been able to graze them at least 3 times and you'll have a strong and deeply rooted grass crop going forward.  Next year, you may be able to graze them 5 times or more.

Long term your goal is to build the soil.  If you do that, you won't have to worry about the grass—it will take care of itself.  Mob-stocking and quick rotational grazing are a fantastic way to build soil, keep all the wonderful cow manure and urine exactly where it's needed, and to build both microbial and fungal quantities in your soil profile.
 
Posts: 90
Location: Saskatchewan
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I would want to get something growing on that ASAP. It is good to get the soil covered as quickly as possible and roots into the ground. Would the farmer be willing to seed it for 1 or 2 years hay for a break on rent?

With proper equipment seeding is quick and easy. Without that equipment seeding 25 acres will be a pretty big job.
 
Gillian McKellar
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Location: Ontario, Canada
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Thanks guys. Yeah, the farmer would like a contract that he can remove hay from the fields for the next 4-5 years to make the seeding worth his while. I’m going to see what I can do to get him to lower those years in exchange for lower rent or at least some kind of exit clause to let me get out earlier if I need to. To have him continually taking fertility from the fields is exactly what I don’t want.

There are a few neighbours who over look our fields, so part of our thinking is to keep them happy as well. Currently the fields are slowly being taken over by horsetail, wild parsnip and thistles which I don’t think is going to make me very popular this year. My hunch too was that once I got animals out there the native grasses would start to come back, but with all our building work this year and the next I don’t think we’ll be ready to get as many animals as it needs for another few years. This year we’re starting with Muscovy ducks and next year we’re planning pastured poultry and pigs. Starting small and building up!
 
gardener
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If it's in the budget, perhaps ask the hay farmer his price if he will just mow it for you a couple times. This way all that biomass gets deposited right back where it came from and will be a great benefit to your soil fertility instead of removing it like Wes noted.
 
Wes Hunter
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Location: Missouri Ozarks
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This topic came to mind today while I was scything a beautiful patch of winter rye and red clover and considering the benefits of removing it all as hay versus leaving it as mulch for a crop of beans as originally intended.

Anyway, my thought was this: why not agree to the farmer seeding the hay fields, on the condition that the hay be fed only in the field?  This could well be a win-win, as you retain the field's fertility--indeed, improve it with the addition of copious amounts of cattle manure--while the farmer (presumably) saves money by hauling his stock to and from your farm once versus hauling load after load of hay.

If you went this route, and expect to put some stock of your own on soon, I'd just work it out such that he gets to cut the entire field this year, then less five acres the next, then less ten acres the next (or whatever numbers make sense) and so on.  It would probably be beneficial to establish, in the contract, a dollar amount for a buyout in the event that you want use of the entire acreage before the contract is up.  Surely between the two of you you can come to terms that are mutually agreeable.

All that said, I'll repeat that it's certainly an option to just seed the field(s) yourself and forego the whole contract hassle.  What's more, you might opt to fallow it all this year, mowing as necessary, and lease it out for some farmer to house his stock over the winter.  Then you get the addition of all that manure, coming with the importation of someone else's hay.  Some might not consider this "permie" or "sustainable," but keep in mind there is such a thing as a fertility cycle.  Fertility has been leaving your farm for years to go elsewhere, and it's probably time to start bringing it back in.
 
pollinator
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Location: northwest Missouri, USA
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My comments will be based on the idea of multi-species grazing.

As Wes has already said, if the hay is being removed from the property, I wouldn't make the deal. If the ground had been plowed for a corn-soybean rotation, the ground is going into early-succession recovery. You'll see plants growing there as a natural repair process. These early-succession plants will dominate for a while until the soil repairs itself and moves on from early succession to its next phase. Are those early-succession plants that appear there good for forage for your proposed animals?  If you don't know the answer, research it to be sure. If you need to supplement the growth with something you want to seed in, that's another discussion on how to get good seed-to-soil contact. I debated this myself and sought some professional help I trusted. Our well-respected NRCS soils guy here in northern Missouri told me in person as we were standing on one of my pastures that haying is almost as hard on land as is row cropping. I asked him about crimping the grasses and forbs down with a roller crimper. He said it wasn't necessary and told me simply to let our pastures grow and die off naturally in anticipation of putting ruminants and other grazers on them in two years. I have followed his advice and am very glad I did. I have a wonderful diversity of forage out there for mixed species grazing. I have also solved the water run off and infiltration problem without doing any earthworks to speak of on my slopes. This was the best exercise in doing nothing that I've ever done! But, it was strategic nothing.

Now, I know we have vastly different growing conditions in Missouri than you do. But, I think the general principles will be the same. Letting pasture grow through its full cycle feels as if you're not capitalizing on your space. I get that. It was hard for me. But, what was going on the whole time was the explosion in below-surface life and a fair amount of new biomass that is now decomposing on top of the previous year's surface. I have great water infiltration, which will serve well during our hot, long summers when we get little rain.  Bear in mind, seeds are going to blow in from everywhere. You have to be able to deal with some plants you may not want. Develop a strategy for that.

One approach to dealing with pasture that is growing a lot of things you may not want long term is to introduce a grazer that will eliminate much of the stuff you don't want. A common choice: goats. You might not want to be a producer of goats. No worries. After you put your goats out there for one or two seasons, you can easily find a market for them. There is a shortage of goat meat in the US. After they are done, you are likely to be in a better position to let the more desirable things grow if beef or dairy cattle were your options. There is always overlap of what different species eat, but the goat is a pretty good helper in cleaning up your paddocks in anticipation of another animal. Wes already mentioned that growing hay and harvesting it in an animal is another option. Check what the local rates are for renting pasture for cattle. Another approach is mechanical reduction ... AKA, mowing. I had a bunch of curly dock show up in about a two-acre area that used to be kinda wet. It was summer already and I knew it was not gonna be too hardy once the real heat and dry conditions set in, so I went out with a brush hog and knocked it all down which allowed the grasses and forbs to take over. I should have seeded in a bit of a mix in the fall, but my day job just got too busy and projects on the homestead took priority.

I think there is far more value in growing soil fertility and organic matter that will pay off financially in the long run than simply a quick financial gain in selling hay for one or two seasons. Besides, hay (at least here) is dirt cheap. Our rule of thumb for hay here in northern Missouri is never grow your own if you can do other things more profitable with your ground. Bring it to the property ... you're adding (usually through manure and residue) and not subtracting that way.

Now, that doesn't mean I don't get a strange look from the guy who used to hay our ground.


 
pollinator
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Having a farmer seed down 25 acres for only 3-4 years worth of hay is a REALLY good deal.

In fact here in most states in the United States, by law a farmer actually has 7 years use of a field after making an improvement whether the "contract" is done in writing, by word of mouth, or implied. The reason is simple, many people would allow a farmer to spread manure, seed, etc and then the next year kick them off the land and use it themselves. Therefore the law allows a farmer to continue to use the land for 7 years, or be compensated for what they did for improvements. I thought it was a law in Canada too, but I could be wrong. You might want to check on that before you violate law by an unlawful contract.


I seeded down only 10 acres last year and the cost was $4200. Seed alone was $600. For 25 acres it would be $1500, and that was before other admendments and fuel. I did not even include labor costs.


As for seeding down 25 acres, I used a minimal amount of equipment and produced a nice smooth 10 acre field, but I did use some. In my case the following, but I already owned it...

A farm tractor
Turning plow
A towed log
A trailer with homemade seed sower
Generator

It also took quite a bit of time too. 3 days alone just to plow, a few more to smooth it, then a few more to put the admendments down (something you want to do before you put it to grass and cannot get them in in the quantities needed). There was a few more for picking rocks, then 1 to sow the seed. Probably 2 weeks with a few days loss for rain or something.

This is my homemade seed sower...(yes, I am cheap), and if you are interested I can go into more detail on the steps of turning a row crop field into a hay/pasture field.




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pollinator
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Do you mean that he wants 4-5 years and won’t be paying rent? That would be a terrible deal here. Also he’s very unlikely to replace the fertilizer he removes.
 
Ken W Wilson
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Location: Nevada, Mo 64772
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I bought a broadcast seeder made for a four wheeler and made a few simple modifications to use it on my truck. What equipment do you have?
 
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I don't consider having a farmer take fertility from your already stretched out fields a good idea at all. From the economic standpoint, sure, but as we all know the economics of large scale farming don't actually make ecological sense. I would reiterate some of the other suggestions: Does anyone around you have a tractor that you can borrow and rent a seeder to use? By not plowing, you could cut down the work time by a lot. The soil will thank you. Also, is it completely not feasible to have animals on your land this year? Even if they are someone else's grazers, having any animals on there full time will benefit the land greatly.
 
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We just kept mowing our pasture for a few years, then put cattle on it.  The mowing added organic matter back to the top of the soil and kept down the tree seedlings and the blackberries.  We are now pasturing chickens on the same fields via a chicken tractor to add nitrogen (and food in the freezer).  Our next addition will be pastured pigs.  We didn't worry too much about flattening the field, as my husband felt that the old rows were adding a few "natural swales" to increase water absorption.  As we have a small pasture, we are just about finished with partitioning it off for rotational grazing to maximize use of the pasture.  It all seems to take time, as we have been working on this since 2012.
 
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I like all the advice above. There is wisdom in a multitude of council.

I would say that if you struggle with cash, getting a bit of income isn’t a bad thing.

56 acres is big. Leaving half of it and getting paid is not a bad idea.

Focus on your first half get systems going nicely then in a few years get something else going.

You can negotiate with the farmer the type of fertilisation he can put on the hay fields.

Four years worth of manure and compost will do your fields good.
 
pollinator
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Great question Gillian. The comments about hauling off hay being a big loss of fertility are all in line with everything Mollison, Salatin and Holzer have written in my understanding. I believe Salatin doesn’t even seed, he lets vegetation come back naturally and seems to do very well. Mollison emphasizes how seeding grasses is unnecessary as they come back on their own, but did endorse getting some particularly beneficial Forbes reestablished by controlling rabbits and overgrazing. He also endorsed what I had thought was my idea until I saw a video of him saying that spreading bird seed (that is fresh enough it still sprouts) is one of the most cost effective ways to boost fertility and cover crop a field.

I have gone with the bird seed in conjunction with peaceful valley soil builder mix and a regional wild flower mix (35-40species) on the 1.25 acres I am managing in a restoration/ food forest project. It took about 40hrs to seed and straw mulch the field by hand. The idea is to get a meadow growing, out of which we will have islands of trees above on what was the construction loading site for adjacent schools and left without topsoil or any other restoration to compact for 40yrs. I bet you have better soil to start with and I would be careful about giving away your fertility, I like the idea proposed to have him run cattle on the land rotationally as he feeds them the hay. I’d have a all poop stays here policy.
 
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I would afdvise asking a lot of questions before signing such a contract, and I'd want some fairly strongprotections written in if you do decide to go that route. How often would the farmer be cutting the hay? How often would he be fertilising, and with what? After 25 years of corn, your fields are going to be in pretty poor condition; if he just seeds and harvests, you're going to have nothing but dirt at the end of the contract. If he *does* plan on fertilising, would it be solid manure (best case), liquid manure (okay biologically, but won't really do much for your soil structure), or chemical fertilisers (just bad)?

Would he be planning to put on pesti/herbi/fungicides? IMO, very much  not a good thing, but you may feel differently, and so may the other farmer. But if it's important to you, you'll want to haveit clearly stated in the contract what is and isn't allowed.

What will he be planting? Here, it's generally reckonned that red clover will have to be resown about every 3-4 years or so, so if someone rents a field for 4 years, and sows it to just red clover, it's pretty much going to be played out right when the contract ends. If your area is similar, you could potentially end up right back where you started from at the end of the contract: Rememer, this is the growth pattern in central Sweden, it may be(probably is) different in your region; you'll have to ask around, if you don't already know.

What kind of equipment does he use-how heavy is it? There was a dairy farmer haying the fields of our farm till we bought it last year, and he used a *really big* tractor to do so. This caused a lot of compaction on our clay-silt fields, which is going to take a number of years to fix.

Is it going to be hay, haylage or silage that he takes? This is connected to the previous question, as if he's making hay everything needs to be nice and dry, which means less compaction, while if he does haylage, he could be going over the fields when they're wetter that is good for them.  We were visiting a friend earlier this week, and I happened to look out over one of her fields which she's renting out, and I saw wheel ruts that were between 6 inches and a foot deep: the person renting the field had driven over it when it was *far* too wet and left these canals in her field. Even if they plow and harrow out the ruts, they'll have left subsoil compaction.

Remember, people tend to be more...relaxed about the long-term condition of other peoples' fields than they are about their own ones, so you're going to have to make sure your land is treated the way you want it to be, and I'd strongly recommend that you get it all down in writing so there aren't any misunderstandings about that treatment. That being said, it is potentially a way to give land you don't have time to care for right now at least *some* attention-we're renting out, on an annual basis, a smaller parcel  off to the east of the home farm to the dairy farmer with the big tractor: we have enough on our plates  with the main land, and this way it won't overgrow while we're busy here.

Finally, if you decide you want to come to an agreement with the other farmer, perhaps you could give him the 3-4 year contract he wants  for part of the 25 acres, but retain the right to take back part of it earlier, on the condition that he seeds all of it?
 
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If it were me, with very little spare cash and unable to realistically use the field for two years, I’d take the deal. Yes you’d lose some fertility but you’d have a seeded pasture at the end of it. I think you’ll find you’ll have plenty to do over the next 3 or 4 years without adding a herd of ruminants into the mix.

We bought 40 acres 3 years ago, got stock a year or so later and got rid of them a year after that. Simply too many things to do getting established to run the stock the way we wanted to. We’ll restock again at some point but not until we’re properly established.
 
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Interesting question, and you are working with a BIG area. I hope you have more than just hand tools for managing it all?

You don't specify it in the original post, but what configuration are the pasture fields in? is it one big, continuous area, or is it subdivided? Subdivisions make for better opportunities for rotational grazing in the future, and now might be a good time to look into any layout changes you might make before planting gets done.  Once your pasture is planted up you need to be aware that continuous grazing in a fixed area will lead to a loss of biodiversity - your animals will selectively graze the tastiest, most nutritious species first, leaving the least palatable ones to thrive. If you want to maintain your pasture nutrition and diversity you need to allow gaps in grazing for each species to set seed, within your grazing cycle.

Our arrangement, here in the UK, is that a local farmer runs their sheep on our pasture for part of each year. We have about 6 acres they spend the summer months on it fattening up their lambs.  They don't pay rent as such, but they keep us supplied with fantastic lamb for our freezer.

From our point of view this is a good arrangement: the nutrients stay on the farm, we don't have to worry about caring for the livestock, and we have been able to learn from them for if/when we might do it ourselves. It isn't perfect though, because we haven't got a rotational system setup within the single field, and we have some areas that get pretty weedy with nettles and thistles. They periodically get mown.

If I were in your position, I would look for a similar arrangement. Find someone who will run their livestock on your land. Give them a generous period to do so (4 seems a little short for the amount of work needed) and use the time to get on with other projects. Ideally you would talk to them first, and come up with a plan that suits both of you - what species mix will the use? how will they rotate livestock etc...

If they are only interested in hay, then consider pushing them towards some species that have added benefits for you. Sanfoin, for example, is nitrogen fixing and makes fantastic honey.
 
Ben Zumeta
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If you leave it alone to the weeds and wildlife it will gain fertility and soil structure. You could boradcast seed balls of particularly choice forage but it’s not necessary.If you let someone hay it you lose fertility and structure unless it’s all consumed and digested on site. I am obviously not the most knowledgeable person on here regarding hay fields but it seems a no brainer from every permie source I’ve read not to do this without stipulating they do it in a way that those cows’ poop ends up on your land. Look into Joel Salatin and rotational grazing with electric fencing for 30$/acre.

“The first harvest off any animal is the manure.”
Chinese proverb
 
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Location: Wellington, Kansas, United States
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I didn't catch that anybody mentioned alfalfa.
Growing up in western Kansas there were a number of farmers who would grow alfalfa for a couple years to recharge the nitrogen in the soil.  I've helped with the process.  Those alfalfa bales are way heavier than straw and a little heavier than prairie hay.
I'm thinking you could pay for the alfalfa seed and he may be more agreeable to 2 or 3 years.  And, the field would have more nitrogen than it does now.
Then when you are ready, you could start over-seeding with a polyculture.
Of course, I don't know how well alfalfa grow in your area.
 
Travis Johnson
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Phil Swindler wrote:I didn't catch that anybody mentioned alfalfa.
Growing up in western Kansas there were a number of farmers who would grow alfalfa for a couple years to recharge the nitrogen in the soil.  I've helped with the process.  Those alfalfa bales are way heavier than straw and a little heavier than prairie hay.
I'm thinking you could pay for the alfalfa seed and he may be more agreeable to 2 or 3 years.  And, the field would have more nitrogen than it does now.
Then when you are ready, you could start over-seeding with a polyculture.
Of course, I don't know how well alfalfa grow in your area.



Not that well in northern climates due to winter-kill, but clover accumulates nitrogen quite well.
 
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