How Do You Make Hay? The Basics

small square bales of grass hay

If you have livestock, you’ll need to have some hay. You could buy it or, if you’ve got extra forage, make it yourself.

How is hay made and what are the key points to making hay that your animals will love?

Hay is made by cutting high quality grass or other forages, letting it dry in the sun, then baling the dried forage for transportation and storage.

Is Making Your Own Hay Worth It? goes over a budget for making your own hay, even if you hire some or all of the work done for you.

Hay is made throughout the growing season of the forage plants in your area. Most people make hay to feed later in the year when the grasses and other forages are not growing well.

In our area, this non growing time is the winter but in extremely hot areas the non growing time is in the summer.  

Hay is a way to preserve some of the growth of your land from the good growing times and use it for your animals later.

Just like canning vegetables, jams and jellies at home or when you buy canned or frozen food at the store, it was all preserved earlier to be eaten throughout the year.

7 Tips To Choose High Quality Hay will show you the specific things you need to look at when you are considering buying a load of hay.

Many types of grasses can be used for hay as long as the plant will dry down enough to keep, otherwise the hay will heat up and begin to decompose.

Generally, farmers use machinery to cut, rake, and bale hay but not always with a tractor.

Many Amish farmers make hay every year without a tractor. They do use machinery to make and gather hay just no engines for traction, only horses provide the draft power.

We use machinery to harvest hay. The machinery we use includes a tractor, mower, tedder, rake, baler and wagons.

Cut the hay at peak nutrition level

1st Or 2nd Cutting Hay? goes over the differences in hay cuttings and why it will matter to you.

The forage growth is monitored as it grows in order to cut it at peak nutritional value, which is just before it starts to flower.

Ideally, at this time you will also have a window of 3-4 dry days in the weather forecast. We don’t want our hay to get rained on because it reduces the nutritional value of the grasses.

Hay needs to be cut so the grass stays in one long piece so the plant will dry out. Hay that is too wet will mold.

Cut the hay with a mower

We use a mower conditioner to cut our hay.

A mower conditioner has a cutting bar across the front that runs close to the ground and cuts the plant stems. Then the grass goes through two rollers that mash the stems to make the plants dry faster.

This is especially useful for forages with fatter stems like field peas that would take much longer to dry if the stems weren’t flattened first.

This is the mower conditioner in action!

A more modern mower is called a disc mower. It has short knife bars on wheels that spin sideways, all under a shield of course.

The advantage to a disc mower is speed and volume. You can drive through the hay much faster and cut thicker growth with a disc mower than other types of mowers.

An older style option is a sickle bar mower. This mower has a 6-8 foot long cutting bar. This is the most popular Amish mower.

Most people use machinery to make and harvest hay, but it can be done by hand. Hand harvesting of hay would involve the use of a scythe to cut the grasses.

A scythe is a long curved blade on a bent wooden handle. It looks odd when not in use but once you see it being used the curves and bends all line up to make your swing of the scythe cut grass evenly.

This is hard work and takes a lot of practice to make it look easy. Not to mention, once the cutting is done and the grass is dry now the hay needs gathered by hand!

This all sounds crazy and out dated but it is still the way some areas of the world that are super steep cut and gather hay.

Haymaking 101 in Farmingmagazine.com goes over making hay in New England, since areas have to consider making hay to fit their specific needs, this article may have some insight for your farm.

Ted the hay to help it dry faster

After a day or so of drying the hay needs to be turned over to get all of the plants dry, even the pieces close to the ground or under other plants, for this farmers use a tedder.

A tedder is pulled behind the tractor and runs like a paddle wheel just fluffing up the hay as the farmer drives over the field.

This gets air circulating to all of the individual plants to make sure all pieces are getting sun so they will be dry.

Hay tedder
This is a PTO driven hay tedder. It fluffs up the cut forages to allow the leaves and stems to dry faster, which improves the quality of the hay.

Rake the hay before baling

The rake is also pulled behind the tractor. Once the hay is dry enough to bale (it will feel crunchy) the hay needs raked up into a windrow so the baler can get all of the pieces of dried grass.

The rake has teeth that grab up the hay and roll it over and over into a long thin twisted row of hay. The rake makes the baler able to get all of the hay in the field.

Raking is not mandatory, you could just bale up the dry hay. But not raking is very wasteful, since you will leave a lot of hay pieces scattered in the field.

The baler is not as capable of a gatherer as the rake. To get the most out of your field and your time you need to rake the hay.

Bale the hay when it’s dry

Now is the big moment! The hay is dry and raked and you are ready to start baling. The baler is pulled behind the tractor.

The baler has a PTO (power take off) shaft that you hook up to the back of the tractor. The PTO shaft spins to power the baler so it can take in the hay and compress it into bales.

The baler has no power of it’s own-it runs off of the tractor and is pulled along through the field by the tractor.

This is our baler and bale basket set up.

Balers come in different types and sizes

There are many types of balers.

Some farmers like small square bales, these can be moved by hand, others like bigger bales that take a tractor to move because they weigh hundreds of pounds each.

The big bales can be round or square and come in various sizes.

Small square balers need a wagon

If you have a small square baler you are usually pulling a wagon. The hay bales get pushed out the back of the baler to a basket (like the video) or a person on the flat bed wagon, attached to the back of the baler, who stacks the bales.

Some balers have a kicker, which means you pull a wagon with cage like sides and the baler kicks/throws the small square bales into the wagon. Handy since one person can harvest hay just by driving.

This is cool because you can pull two wagons and fill the back one first, you just adjust the kicker range!

Round bales are gathered with a loader

The round bales are left in the field, they pop out the back of the baler when the bale is big enough and the baler has wrapped the hay in twine or netting so it stays together and can be moved.

Since these bales are so big, 500-1,000 pounds, they must be gathered after being baled.

Some farmers do leave round bales hay out in the field all year but this will ruin the outer layer of the bale. If it is really rainy the whole bale will be ruined.

Large square bales need moved with a loader

The large square bales are just as big as the round bales so will also need to be moved by a tractor.

Lawn mowers do not work for hay

Cutting hay with a lawn mower does not work well. In order to dry, the grasses must be whole so they lose moisture not just heat up and rot.

Think about when you are late mowing your lawn and the grass is pretty tall. The mower spits out chunks of grass that just sit in the sun and get stinky. That’s not good hay.

Plants have to be spread out evenly to dry. The lawn mower cuts the pieces too short.

This is no surprise because lawn mowers are designed to cut the grass in a way that makes the clippings not pile up so your lawn looks nice. This is the opposite of mowing for hay.

Hay can be made from many plants

Just about any grass left to grow long can make hay.

However, certain varieties of grasses like timothy and orchard grass are usually used for hay because you get much more growth so more hay per acre than shorter more lawn type grasses.

Keep animals off of the land you intend to mow for hay and keep checking the growth of the grass so you know when to mow it.

If you have good soil you don’t need to fertilize. If you have poor soil consider some amendments to improve your yield.

Hay regrowth depends on weather

How fast or slow your hay field will regrow depends upon the weather.

Generally, there are multiple cuttings of hay made off of the same field. Just like your lawn keeps growing and you keep mowing it.

Most farmers anticipate the first cutting of a hay field to be a month or so after the spring green up (when everything really starts growing in the spring) and every month or so after that.

For most farmers around here, 3 cuttings would be normal and a 4th cutting would be a bonus.

Most hay plants are perennial

Most grasses used for hay are perennials. Perennial forages will come back year after year. Your lawn is most likely perennial grasses.

Commonly used perennial forages for hay would include orchard grass, alfalfa, some clovers and timothy.

Hay can be made from annual forages

Some farmers plant an annual specifically to produce a quick, high tonnage hay cutting. Annuals are plants that will not regrow next year, they must be replanted.

Annuals used for hay include sudan grass, teff, millet, small grains harvested as forage, and some clovers.

You can sell extra hay

Sure, lots of people sell hay.

The good news is many people that have hay eaters do not have enough grass or hay of their own so they buy hay every year.

The bad news is that selling hay also takes fertility out of your soil. For any hay ground that you sell the hay from, be sure to replenish the nutrients.

Round bales can sit in the field

If a farmer does not have a good way to store hay, sometimes the bales are left in the field. This is generally just round bales.

Ideally, the round bales will form a harder outer layer from getting rained on then then drying out again that keeps the inner hay dry.

The other type of bales that get left in the field are wrapped with plastic so they do not need to be inside the plastic protects the hay from weather damage.

We make a fermented hay called haylage, these are the white bales that look like big marshmallows sitting in the field. Our sheep love it, so do the cattle.

What Is Haylage? will show you the details and why you might want to make some yourself.

Any size field can grow hay

Any amount of land can grow hay. The question is will it be worth your time and effort to get the hay off of that acreage and can you get machinery in there to do it?

We can get around 100 bales per acre per year here. Your area may be better or worse. Ask around and make an informed decision.

Before we moved to this farm, we lived outside of Wooster, Ohio on a smaller property with a open (nothing to run over/into) front yard.

The yard was less than an acre and we routinely baled that for grass hay. It was right along the road, so I’m sure people noticed, but better than buying hay!

As long as you are okay with the really tall grass by your house, you can bale up nearly anything.

Related Questions

What is the difference between hay and straw?

The difference between hay and straw is that hay is dried grass harvested to use as feed for livestock.

Straw is the dead stalk of small grains, like wheat or barley, that is used as bedding not as feed.

What animal needs hay?

All animals that are naturally grass eaters need hay when grass is not available. This includes livestock as well as pets like guinea pigs and rabbits.

Similar Posts