A hay decision

Making hay is a pretty exact science. If the hay is cut too early, the yield from that field is less than what it could have been, reducing the output for the work invested. If the hay is cut too late, the palatability and nutritional content fade quickly, reducing its quality for animal feed. Timing is everything, and since we don’t have our own equipment for making hay, we long ago decided to let our sheep graze our summer pastures and to use others’ hay to feed our flock once grazing season is done. This allows us to keep more sheep and to not worry about whether we can borrow the equipment to cut our hay at peak nutrition. For years now, we’ve worked with a farm that fulfills all of our hay needs, and they’re really good at what they do. Yet they can’t do much about the weather — especially the rain. They have to work with whatever does or doesn’t come from the skies.

Thankfully, we’ve had a reasonable amount of rain coming every few days this year. Such regular rainfall allows the fields to grow even in hot summer weather, so both the grass fields and the alfalfa fields have looked green and lush every time I’ve driven by. When I left for my recent travel, I knew we were close to the second cutting of alfalfa, the cutting we usually buy. I contacted my hay guy to let him know our barn was ready for hay whenever they got it baled — and he said they were expecting to cut any day.

As we traveled around North Carolina and the surrounding states, I monitored the weather back in Iowa. I knew we would have to move sheep as soon as we returned, and I didn’t want to do it standing in a thunderstorm. Thankfully, when I checked midweek, the forecast for the entire weekend of our return was free of rain. In fact, the last possibility of showers came on Friday, with no possibility of rain until the Tuesday after our return. This would give me plenty of time to move our sheep to new pasture. I continued to check in with our local station’s weather app as our trip slowly brought us home — and nothing changed. I made plans to move our sheep on Sunday, the day after our return.

Unfortunately, only an hour after I went out to move our sheep on Sunday, a very black line of storm clouds began a relentless march from the western horizon. Within about half an hour, those black clouds were overhead, whipping up the winds, throwing bolts of lightning and dumping copious rain over the sheep and me. I stood out there with the flock, thinking that this unforecasted storm would surely pass quickly. But after another half hour of trying to move the sheep, I realized that my work had been rained out. I returned to the house to wring out my hair and clothing and dry off.

Unbeknownst to me — and due to the nice stretch of rainfree days in the forecast — our alfalfa hay had been cut on Saturday morning, with plans to bale it on Monday after it had dried. When that Sunday storm whipped up, it dumped all of that rain on my beautiful, green alfalfa that lay in the fields drying. Well, obviously not drying — more like soaking, but you get what I mean.

When I got the call early last week to let me know the situation, the obvious question was whether I would still be interested in that hay. After all, it was no longer the beautiful green hay that they usually produce. Yet I also knew that I would need alfalfa hay — and that because we buy a lot of it, I would otherwise be scrounging to find enough if I didn’t use our usual source. I quickly did some research into what happens to alfalfa when it gets rained on during drying, and believe it or not, there is a lot of research out there! This situation must happen rather frequently.

Our pile of delivered 2nd cutting alfalfa hay - not as green as usual, but plenty good for our ewes during gestation

Our stack of second-cutting alfalfa hay — not as green as usual, but plenty good for our ewes during gestation.

I learned that the biggest threat is the loss of leaves when they shatter in the rain. When I went to look at our hay that was stored in the supplier’s barn, the leaves were still very present — you could easily see them packed into the flakes within the bales. The protein — which is the major reason we switch to alfalfa during late gestation and lactation — isn’t lost if the hay is rained on, so that was good news too. The biggest loss can be to the carbohydrates and palatability — neither of which is a big issue for us. By the time we begin to feed our our alfalfa, our sheep are far enough into their gestation and hungry enough that they will eat almost anything. Plus, we supplement our hay with some grain for more carbs, so again, this isn’t a critical issue. The most obvious issue with hay that has been rained on is the loss of color: the alfalfa is no longer that lovely bright green — instead it turns brownish-gray.

In the end, I did buy about half of our alfalfa hay from this second cutting and will use it for our flock during late gestation — likely switching to third cutting (however that turns out) during lactation. Each time I enter the Sheep Barn over the past days, the lovely scent of fresh hay surrounds me as I go about my work. I will admit that the hay isn’t as visually beautiful as usual, but it still smells as sweet — and I’m sure the sheep would love to get into it already!

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