Scouting Hayfields: How to Find Your Hay Before It Is Baled
For some horse owners, it's always time to buy hay. Large herds and dry summers can make feeding hay a year-round necessity. Single horse families and large horse operations alike may have a steady supplier, but if you shop around for hay often, you may want to consider scouting hayfields and buying hay right out of the field rather than out of the loft or delivery truck.
Why? The main reason for scouting and monitoring hayfields is that you will know what is in the hay. Also, hay is generally lower in price when the hay maker does not have to cart the hay wagon home, stack the bales in his barn, store the hay for you, and help load you up later when you come to buy it. It's a lot less work. In addition, buying hay in larger quantities will usually get you a better price and, providing you have ample storage space in your own loft, this may be the way to go. Some hay makers may even allow you to pay in portions for large quantities.
To buy hay out of the field, you may want to contact the hay maker beforehand so you can coordinate the purchase when the hay is baled, providing the hay cutting, drying, and baling happens during acceptable weather. You may also be fortunate enough to live near many hay fields where you can monitor them all. Knowing what the weather conditions are when each field of hay is cut, dried and baled is valuable information. You will then know if you are getting hay that was made under optimal weather conditions. Make hay while the sun shines! Poor quality hay results from exposure to rain, excessive humidity, inadequate drying, or bleaching from prolonged sunlight.
Take a good look at the field while it is growing - are there too many unwanted weeds? Don't be afraid of all weeds, however. Some weeds are desirable in that the mineral content is great in them, and horses may love the variety. Is the mixture of grasses what you are looking for? Mixed hays are good, but may be harder to cure because of varying moisture content among the different types of grasses and legumes. Does your horse require strictly one type of grass? Is the field narrow and surrounded by trees whose branches have fallen all over the field? Are poison ivy and brambles rampant? Some of these things can be spotted in the bales before they are cut open, but some may go unnoticed. Consider the location of the field. If it is along a busy road, litter and exhaust fumes may pollute the hay. There may be low-lying areas and wet spots in the field that will spoil the hay.
Find out, or better yet, watch to see if any undesirable pesticide and herbicide sprays are applied. Perhaps the hay maker does not use such sprays but the hay maker for the field beside it does. If applied on a breezy day, the overspray will carry to the adjoining fields and contaminate them. Find out if the hay has been fertilized with natural or chemical fertilizers.
Scouting hayfields lets you see for yourself the growth stage during which the hay was cut. The maturity of the hay when cut helps determine its quality. Alfalfa hay, for instance, is best cut before going to flower for nutritional and blister beetle reasons, and timothy hay is more nutritious if the heads are three inches long than if they are six inches long.
Maybe someday you will pass by a hay field of perfection being cut. If you watched it grow and knew no pesticides or herbicides were applied, stop back to check on things each day for the next few days. See for yourself how it is drying and being baled. If the weather conditions were favorable, flag down the hay maker or put a note on the hay wagon to call you if it is for sale!