Making hay – literally – while the sun shines

Gary Hubbell

“Jump in!” Bobby said as I climbed the steps into his swather. There was a little seat about 8 inches wide for the occasional guest to sit on, and I plunked down there, but it was tight. Bobby revved the engine. The knives of the sickle bar slicked back and forth and the hay piled up behind us in a big, fragrant green windrow of brome, timothy, orchard grass, alfalfa and clover. “This is great hay,” Bobby said. “You’ll get at least 2 tons to the acre.””Everybody thinks this is easy,” Bobby said, and at about 9 mph, it did look easy. “But this swather costs $85,000 new. I don’t like breakdowns. That’s why I run new equipment.”Sure enough, on the second row around my 50-acre field near Crawford, there was some old thatch underneath the new grass, which was very thick, and the head of the swather got tightly jammed up with a wad of new-mown hay. Bobby cursed, and we jumped down and started pulling grass out with our pocketknives and hands. It was hotter than the dickens, and the sweat poured off us. “It’s not so easy now, is it?” Bobby said. Twenty minutes later, Bobby was rolling again. He finished our field at about 11 o’clock that night.As rural parcels get divided and subdivided into smaller and smaller fields, guys like Bobby get very, very busy. When you’re looking at haying 20 acres to feed your horses or a few head of cattle, you have some difficult choices. If you want to buy your own equipment, you have the choice of decades-old junk that is well beyond its useful life span, or expensive new equipment that will never pencil out. Or you can call a custom farmer like Bobby Reed. He puts up about 2,000 tons of hay per year.The downside to hiring a custom haying outfit like Bobby’s is timing. You have to go by his schedule. One day you might look at the weather report and the growth of your hay and decide, “Today’s the day,” and begin cutting. But you may not be scheduled with a custom farmer until two weeks later, and that could be when a rainy cycle begins.Our parcel, at 100 acres of hay, is one of the bigger places that Bobby cuts. I spent weeks this spring looking for my own equipment. Our tractor, which we bought new for $30,000, is 57 horsepower. It’s a little small for a place that size. We really should have an 85-hp tractor, but those cost more like $60,000. You need at least 70 hp to run a decent-sized rotary cutter that you pull behind the tractor – and, by the way, the cutters run about $22,000 new. The other option is to buy a swather like Bobby’s, starting at well over $50,000 for a new one.You can find old beat-up square balers to bale your hay into the small square bales that horse people like for a minimum of around $3,500. If you’ve ever seen the mechanism of a bale knotter, it’s a wonder that anyone ever engineered such a curious device. Buying an old, used baler is a certain invitation to frustration. You’ll find out how good a mechanic you are with 50 tons of hay on the ground and a thunderhead looming behind you as you sweat and cuss underneath a dusty machine.New square balers can be had for between $16,000 and $22,000, and they’re worth it.In cattle country, almost everybody has gone to big round bales, because it’s so much easier to handle large quantities of hay. Instead of loading 20 65-pound small bales onto a trailer by hand, you simply stab one 1,350-pound round bale with the bale spear on your tractor loader arm, and go out and feed your cattle. Most round balers require a 70-hp or bigger tractor, and new round balers cost about $25,000. Are you starting to understand? This stuff is expensive. If you really shop carefully and buy good-quality, slightly used equipment, you can buy a pretty good haying setup for around $50,000. And you just bought yourself a damned tough job, with a lot of blood, sweat, tears and diesel fuel. Or you can patch together a collection of worn-out junk for $12,000 or so, and be cussing nonstop. Bobby charges about $60 a ton to cut, bale and stack hay, and he works up to 20 hours a day during haying season.Here’s what gets me: Hay sells for $150 a ton and people complain about the price. Our land has escalated in value from the $3,100 an acre that we paid in 2002 to $11,000 an acre today. It cost $5,600 to fertilize 100 acres. The water that flows from the reservoir costs several hundred dollars a year. Someone has to go out every day and irrigate two hours a day for six months.In truth, hay should sell for about $300 a ton, especially for small square bales. Have you ever loaded 600 bales of hay on a semi-flatbed? Talk about manual labor. It takes two guys at least half a day of damned hard work. You could load the same tonnage of large round bales in 20 minutes with a tractor.Most of the small bales are sold for horse hay. I feed my horses with round bales, because you can put out one bale and be done with it for a week. But the English show barns want small square bales so they can carefully measure how many flakes of hay they feed their prize horses, and lord help you if your hay has a spot of mold or a weed in it. So why do we do it? Because it’s fine work. It’s honest. It smells good. It’s so damned satisfying to let the water down the ditch and onto a thirsty field. It’s beautiful to see the wind catch the pollen on the seed heads of the grass and watch the bees light on the clover and the alfalfa. The doe mule deer that stands in the tall grass won’t move away because her fawn is bedded down there, and she’s there because I grew that grass.It’s gratifying to see a hungry horse or cow take a big bite of fresh green hay, and know that they’re well-nourished by the fruits of your labor. It makes people happy to have high-quality hay available for their animals. For me, I don’t raise hay for $5 a bale. I grow it for the land and the animals, not for people and their money.Gary Hubbell is a freelance writer and photographer, and the co-owner of OutWest Guides in Marble, Colo. (, an outfitting service providing overnight pack trips, guided fly-fishing trips, and elk and deer hunts. He lives in Crawford.


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