This is an article written by Andrew – our Chairman. Getting hay cut on small meadow fields has been a hot topic of discussion recently – and we would really like any comments and information you can feed back on this (dear readers).
As we all know, if you want to maintain or enhance the species-richness of a piece of grassland, the soil fertility needs to be low. So, apart from avoiding the application of fertiliser (either artificial or biological in origin) you need to have some means of taking the annual growth of the meadow’s constituent plants away so they are not recycled into the soil. This is done either by selective grazing of the field (by horses, cattle or sheep) or in the case of a hay meadow, by excluding grazing animals during late spring and summer and cutting the field for hay at the end of the summer. This was normal agricultural practice for many centuries but it isn’t now; hence the loss of nearly all the UK’s flower-rich meadows in the last eight decades.
If you have a hay meadow that needs to be cut, and the crop taken off the field, how do you go about it? There are three basic options: (i) acquire the kit to do it yourself, (ii) get someone else to do it for you with the hay crop as all or part payment, (iii) pay someone else to do it for you if you want to keep the hay for yourself.
Option (i) is largely outside the scope of this short article, but briefly, DIY haymaking kit need not be the latest in high-tech expensive agricultural machinery, in fact it probably won’t be because haymaking has not been part of mainstream farming for a long time. It’s likely to be machine technology from the 1950’s onwards if you want to avoid a large amount of physical labour; although if you have the energy (or many hands to make the work lighter) scything and stacking hay by hand is the traditional way of doing it. You can read about it and other related matters here: https://scythecymru.co.uk/hand-hay-making/. If you were at our Spring meeting at Drefach Felindre in March, you’ll have seen how Julian & Fiona Wormald, and Andrew & Helen Martin do small-scale haymaking with some newish and some old machinery; and also heard from Laurence Brooks and his experiences (both positive and negative) with contractors when he wants the hay himself.
If you don’t want to keep the hay crop for your own (or your livestock’s) use, it’s very convenient if someone who does want it can come and cut the field, turn and dry it as necessary, put it into rows ready for baling, and then bale it. They may take the bales as payment for doing the work, so everyone is happy. Quite a few of our members’ fields are managed in this way and so were ours before we got the kit to do it ourselves. But it’s probably not going to be a general agricultural contractor who does this. There are a lot of reasons (small fields, steep land, narrow gateways, low yield of crop per acre by modern ryegrass field standards) why it is just not worth their while in business terms. So usually, it’s a semi-retired farmer neighbour with small/old haymaking kit who only has to travel a short distance with the machinery.
Before we got the kit to do our own haymaking, we asked our farmer neighbour if he would do it in exchange for the contents of the bales. He was willing to do it, but that’s only because he had several small fields of his own along the same lane as ours are, so he didn’t have to travel to get to our fields. Also, he’s not an intensive dairy farmer. To feed traditional breeds of livestock traditional hay is fine, but for modern breeds of dairy cow it doesn’t have enough energy or protein compared to silage from heavily fertilised ryegrass. For the first few years that’s how our fields were managed. He still treated the grass as silage, and made large bales which were wrapped for storage. Since acquiring our own haymaking kit, we’ve done it all ourselves, and we sell the bales (small bales which we can lift on and off a trailer) to a friend whose sheep eat them over the winter.
In 2017, after misjudging the weather window and getting heavy rain on an already windrowed hay crop, the ground was waterlogged and the windrows too wet for our mini-baler to handle, and more rain was coming, so we needed to get someone to bale us out, so to speak. Our farmer neighbour was away in Ireland, so we asked another local farmer (and contractor) we know if he’d come and bale it if he could take the bales away. He agreed to do it, but only because we’d already done all the work except for the baling. Mind you, we still had to rake our small windrows by hand into fewer, bigger rows to suit his large round baler. Two huge tractors arrived, he was driving the one towing the big round baler, and his teenage daughter was driving the other towing a large flatbed trailer. They just fitted through our gateways. He baled our wet field in about five minutes, whereas it would have taken most of an afternoon with our small baler. He got three big bales from a field of about one acre (contractors would want 5 or 6 big bales per acre to make it economically viable to do all the work). The bales were loaded onto the trailer using the loader on the front of his tractor, and his daughter drove off with them to their farm the other side of the village, where they were wrapped. Chatting to him afterwards, he told us that those three bales would feed his stock for about 2 days that winter.
It can be difficult to get fields cut if the neighbouring farmers with hay/silage making equipment don’t want the crop. There are still some options open though, apart from local knowledge. Sometimes, a 3rd party who wants species diverse hay (for example for equestrian use) might arrange for it to be cut, and pay for the work so they get the hay crop, at no cost to the owner of the field. The internet, Facebook and forums might throw up some local contacts. The hay itself can be advertised on Gumtree, Facebook, Facebook swapshops, or freecycle, on a “free if you cut it and take it away” basis. It could also be advertised on animal feedstore noticeboards, tack shops, local garages or pubs – it’s a good idea to advertise widely but very locally because it is probably only going to be someone local who can cut it and take it away, and won’t have to bring their kit too far.
If anyone else who has read this far has any other suggestions which would help meadow owners who are having trouble getting their fields cut, please use the “Leave a reply” facility, it would be very useful to pool our knowledge. But it seems that it’s usually a very local solution that is found rather than a county-wide one.