June is typically a lush month, with the natural world in the thick of buds, blooms, and potential. For farmers and those who depend on them (that’s you and me), it’s time to cast a weather eye to the sky and think about hay. And there are so many more things to know about hay besides making it when the sun shines, although that might be the cardinal rule. I don’t know the chemistry behind the heat-generating capabilities of wet bales, but the fire potential is huge.
So: “Make sure it’s dry when you put it in the barn,” says Mike Kichline, who, with his mom, Linda, runs Kichline Farm, over near Welsh Settlement. It depends on the kind of grass being cut and whether you are putting up square bales or round ones (more on those choices in a minute), but three full good drying days is best and four is sometimes better.
What kind of grass makes good hay? Pennsylvania is, according to a recent Penn State agronomy guide, the tenth largest producer of hay in the United States, and we grow all kinds of it.
Alfalfa, a high-yield and nutrient-dense animal feed, is the state’s largest single forage crop; half of the total hay production is alfalfa. It does, however, prefer well-drained soils.
“Alfalfa doesn’t like wet feet or clay soils,” notes Tim Webster, who, with his son, Todd, raises grass-fed beef, pigs, and crops on the family’s Dutch Hill Road Hillstone Farms (you can find them at the Wellsboro Growers’ Market on Thursdays). So, while acres of alfalfa would be ideal, most Tioga County soils are not particularly suited for that kind of production.
What does work well here are timothy, tall fescue, and birdsfoot trefoil. Mike Kichline calls trefoil, which is actually a legume, “the poor man’s alfalfa” and incorporates it into the farm’s grass mix for reseeding the hay fields. Timothy is a bunch grass that makes a good hay in combination with trefoil, alfalfa, and red clover. Tall fescue works fine on its own for hay, or with some clovers.
“It is hard to make good clover hay,” in part because clover has a higher moister content, Mike says. Clover makes good pasture, however.
As for the round/square bale debate, Mike and Linda think it’s good to have options. A round baler is a labor saver, and when it comes to getting hay out of the eld, their motto is “leave no bale behind.” Considerations include whether the hay is intended for immediate consumption or is to be stored for sale/use throughout the year. They don’t have livestock, so their hay is a cash crop (full disclosure—I buy some of my horse hay from them, and my guys love it; my other source, Rick and Janelle Davis, have fabulous hay as well). Storage is a factor, too, and while Mike is the first to admit that the Kichline’s huge old barn is “awesome when it’s empty,” he says the best part of haying is “when it’s all put in.”