REGION — “Making hay while the sun shines” is more than just a colloquial expression. For area farmers, the annual hay harvest involves much more than sunny days.

Maine livestock producers need a food source for their animals when temperatures dip and snow covers their pastures. Ruminants, animals with four part stomachs, especially need the roughage provided by grass or hay.

Dry hay is harvested at about fifteen percent moisture, Russell Black of Black Acres Farm in Wilton said.

Hay harvests have changed significantly over the years. Area farmers were once familiar with scythes, hand rakes and wagons filled with loose hay.

Advances in technology led to simple pieces of machinery hauled by horses or oxen. Those tools saved time and reduced the labor needed.

Today’s farmers use tractors and more sophisticated equipment to harvest the hay crop. Much time and effort as well as many different machines are still required.

Newer mowing machines not only cut the hay, they can also crimp or condition it to speed drying time. Many models also place the cut hay in a windrow rather than leaving it flat on the ground.

After a field is cut, Black said it is tedded at least twice: later on the day it was cut and again the next morning once the dew has evaporated. Earlier in the season, the hay may need to be tedded a third time to help dry it faster, he said. Tedding fluffs up the windrow but must be done before the hay is too dry to prevent too much leaf loss.

A few hours after the final tedding, Black uses a rotary rake to further condense the windrow and offer a bit more drying time. Timing is again critical to obtain optimal harvest yields.

Farmers then use a round baler or a square baler to condense the hay and package it for storage. Black uses both machines, depending on the field and what the hay will be used for.

Wife Susan Black drives the tractor while square baling. The tractor hauls the baler plus a wagon where the hay is stacked. She prefers baling on fairly level ground and loves her job, she said.  

Russell said his square bales weigh 30-40 pounds. He sells them primarily to area horsemen. Square bales can be easier to handle in a barn.

Round bales weigh 800 pounds. A tractor equipped with a special spear or fork is needed to lift the bales onto an open trailer for transport back to the storage area. These bales, unlike square bales, can be left outdoors. Some spoilage in the outer few inches will occur.

Many farmers choose to harvest early first cuttings or second cuttings as baleage. Its higher moisture content, 60-80 percent, means less handling is needed at first. More work is required after baling to wrap and stack the bales, Black said.

With baleage, each round bale is completely covered with plastic to prevent spoilage. The plastic creates an individual silo. If it is punctured, more spoilage occurs, Black said.

The plastic costs about $4 per bale. Farmers don’t have to fight the weather as much with this harvesting technique.

“This time of year, you can mow and bale it shortly afterwards,” Black said.

Tuesday, Black and his family began working on one large field in East Wilton and finished harvesting another large area nearby. 1,000 square bales plus several round bales were harvested there.

Wednesday was another full day of work before a rain shower stopped production with only two windrows left to bale. Once it stops raining, a lot of extra work will be needed to get them dry enough to bale.

A first tedding will spread the rows out for faster drying. Another tedding may be needed before the hay is raked again. 

Nutritional quality decreases every time hay gets wet. Mulch hay is scarce, Black said, and can be almost as expensive as good hay.

“I hope it doesn’t get wet again,” Black said.

To maximize hay quality and yields, farmers must be familiar with  the weather. Forecasts aren’t always accurate. Farmers try to beat the weather, Black said.

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