As a homesteader, you will probably arrive at a point where you decide to raise livestock of some kind. If you choose to keep cows, goats, horses or any other kind of grazing animal, you are going to need hay. And ultimately, you will have to decide whether or not to grow your own hay or to purchase hay from the outside world.
What is hay?
Hay is basically grasses, grains or small legumes (like alfalfa or clovers) that have been cut and dried for later use. Normally, your animals would be grazing on forage in your pastures and paddocks. But either because of winter, the need to keep an animal off of pasture, poor pasture quality or an over population of livestock, you will need hay in one quantity or another.
When the grasses, grains or legumes in the hay meadow are at a desired height, the meadow is mowed. The hay is then raked, dried and then baled into either small square bales, round bales or large square bales. Where I’m at in Texas, round bales are the most common way to store hay these days.
The modern production of hay requires costly equipment, a hard earned working knowledge of the process, manpower and fossil fuels. If you’ve got the time and the ability to maintain it, used equipment can be found for sale and at auctions. And with a bit of trial and error, you can make your own hay (although I would recommend trying to learn as much as possible from folks who have been doing it for years.)
Should the Homesteader Make Their Own Hay?
There are a lot of variables involved when deciding to grow your own hay or purchase it. The first major question is how much land do you have to begin with and are you able to keep your livestock off of pasture during the spring and summer to allow the hay to grow. We only have five acres of pasture on our place. With our current amount of livestock, we could grow about three acres of hay, but if we had more animals, we would need all of our pasture acreage for forage. In order to get a good yield and possibly multiple cuttings, your hay meadow shouldn’t have livestock actively grazing on it during the growing season. For a lot of homesteaders with smaller acreage, they need every acre for forage.
As I mentioned earlier, there is the need of the equipment, fuel, knowledge and manpower required for hay production. That up front cost and learning curve might keep some people from cutting their own hay. This of course can be overcome by having someone else cut the hay that you have grown on your land. Around where I live, it is common during drier years for hay balers to cut an bale for a percentage of the overall yield. They then sale or use the hay that they have bartered their time and resources for. In a wet year, when yields are going to be high, they are less likely to barter and more likely to require a cash payment. Another factor to consider is that some operators may be less inclined to take the time to cut and bale a small piece of property when they have larger clients waiting.
Another factor to take into consideration is the diversity of the hay that you are looking to feed your livestock. Our pasture consists of mostly coastal Bermuda with some white clover that I have mixed in over the last few years. But if I was interested in feeding a hay with a higher protein content like alfalfa, I would either have to try and grow it myself or bring it in from the outside. In that case, with my limited acreage, I would definitely opt to bring in hay from the outside. But with a larger amount of land, you could set aside a few acres to grow a particular kind of hay to meet your needs.
Yearly hay production off of the same piece of land will deplete nutrients, just as if you were growing any other kind of crop. This will require you to add nutrients back either through commercial fertilizers or organic fertilizers. One argument for buying hay that I read years ago in a book called Farming for Self-Sufficiency was:
“Farmers say when a man buys hay, he buys land.”
I believe this is true in two ways. It lets you utilize land that you would have tied up in hay production for foraging or the growing of other crops. Buying hay also allows you to add organic material to your land. Instead of taking nutrients out of your soil through hay production, you are adding nutrients into your ecological system. By feeding your livestock, they gain the nutrients and then produce manure that you can then use to add additional nutrients to your pastures.
For the small homesteader with a limited amount of time and budget, I would recommend buying hay. But if you have a larger amount of land available, growing your own hay is a viable option.