How do you get your meadow cut if you don’t have the kit to do it yourself?

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.

6 thoughts on “How do you get your meadow cut if you don’t have the kit to do it yourself?

  1. I don’t know if this is helpful.
    I see people advertising ‘standing hay’, usually for sale, rather than free. I have also seen advertisements for standing hay, suitable for bedding ( i.e. not good enough for fodder, probably because of rushes or other undesirable content).
    A neighbouring farmer was happy to pay a local contractor to mow and bale our field of about 5 acres ( he did the rest himself), plus pay us something for the crop – about 170 small bales.
    On the other hand, we also have a wet field which nobody seems to want, (it would be for bedding) because of the rushes, meadowsweet etc, but mainly because it is so wet for travelling over. It is a problem. We have a 20HP tractor with 4 wheel drive and there are not many times in the year when I can go on it. I cut it with a flail mower, making several passes to avoid creating thick mats of cut material. I don’t have any motorised means of collecting the grass etc so it just has to stay – too much area to cover by hand. However the field is fairly low in fertility anyway, judging by the wild flower content, so not too worried.
    I have a ride on mower with grass collection but would probably get stuck having turf tyres. Also it would still be a huge task to keep emptying the collection bags.

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  2. I have had meadows in Carmarthenshire for nearly 20 yrs and have always managed to get them cut and baled one way or another, apart from one year when my neighbours let me down and the crop fell flat leaving a bit of a mess. On that occasion I got some sheep in after Christmas to trample, break up and eat the crop and the meadows were back to a fairly good state by the end of the following summer although I guess they were better fertilized than usual due to the higher food intake of the grazing sheep that were no doubt on the land longer than they would have been normally.

    In the early years I bought an old 4wd tractor, a small rectangular baler, a drum mower and an old russian tedder. Unfortunately, due to other commitments at that time I only managed the cutting and rowing up before incoming bad weather forced me to get a neighbour to come in and finish the job I’d started. He charged me for re-rowing as his bailer wanted different rows to mine and by the time I’d paid him for labour and materials and lost a load of bales due to mould, I’d spent many hours making a huge loss.

    In subsequent years I got another neighbour to buy the grass off the fields but haphazard payment and slipping grazing/cutting times meant the land was better from a farmers perspective than from a conservationists.

    This year I toyed with the idea of harvesting wild flower seed and then getting a late summer cut but arrangements haven’t worked out as I’d hoped and I now have a hay crop that I’m probably not going to get cut.

    Possible solutions are getting my own machinery de-neglected and working again, although with limited time and rusty knowledge this might be easier said than done. I also have another dilemma and that is, as a vegetarian heading towards vegan, I’d really prefer not to support livestock farming if I don’t have to and so I’ve been looking at other ideas for what to do with 40 acres of hay. Yes, sorry, should have mentioned that earlier, I’ve got a fair bit of hay to do something with! Anyway, long term my idea is to use it to produce bio fuel in the form of compressed loglets. There’s a fair bit of investment required but my conscience would sit happier and the timing of the cut would be much less critical.

    Maybe if there’s sufficient interest from other meadow owners there might be scope for a bit of a cooperative of some sort? Just an idea.

    If all else fails this year, it’ll be back to heavy footed sheep to break up the fallen hay crop although I might have to get my own semi-wild sheep and hang on to them as I’m not sure I’m up for pre-slaughter fattening these days.

    I know many hardened country folk won’t share my views on animals not being there to be eaten but that’s where I’m at now and I feel much happier with my conservation activities. On the plus side, lack of any cutting so far this year has meant a bumper crop of wild flowers and associated butterflies and barely a blade of ryegrass in sight anywhere which is brilliant news.

    Any comments, ideas most welcome and a big thank you to The Carmarthenshire Meadows group for the local forum and a chance to explore and discuss things with like minded local people.

    Best regards

    West Carms meadow owner.

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  3. Hi Andrew. Thanks for posting this interesting article. We follow the second option you mention. The farmer who used to rent and graze the fields before we came here in 2008, now comes and cuts the hay, usually around mid August, in exchange for the crop. He also grazes his sheep on the fields for a few weeks sometime between late autumn/ and late winter to top the grasses so the flowers can have a head start in the spring. Because this is an exchange rather than a financial arrangement, we have complete say as to when to cut and when to graze, which works really well for the wildflowers. We have seen a big decrease in the number of bales he takes. In the early years he got about 25 of the big bales from 5 1/2 acres, but last year it was at the most 15. This relationship with the farmer has worked very well so far so I hope it continues despite the decreasing yields.
    We have seen a big increase in Dock this summer, which appeared last year for the first time. I have to check up if this affects the desirability of the hay crop. Maybe someone can enlighten me on this.

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    • from Ruth Watkins: I am surprised if the field is of low fertility and not given any fertiliser that a lot of docks have appeared. I find as the fertility falls the docks go away, no problem at all with them in the SSSI marshy grassland fields and fen. The dock just vanish in the other fields and those that come back have their spring leaves completely eaten by the sheep, then as they grow again with the hay dock beetles arrive and shred their leaves completely in June July. If you have some that set seed as I do between gates or in the bank by the house I leave them to stand and the birds love it in the autumn- sparrows, tits and bullfinches.

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  4. I would say if one wants to lower fertility of a meadow it needs to be cut and the material removed. Just grazing it would remove very little NPK though growing young animals do retain more NP than they shed in an otherwise steady state as an adult. My wet fields cannot be cut for hay. A hay meadow is a special field, one that is dry in the summer, that is cut every year, or nearly, favouring certain plants that flower and set seed by the time it is cut in July. I have 2 such fields, reverting, and have my own tractor drum mower and hay bob. A local contractor comes each year to bale and wrap. This crop is fed during the winter months to the cattle in the shed and some to the sheep in winter and over lambing. Lately I find my tractor too difficult to drive for hours, or the hay crop has been very heavy this year, so the contractor cuts it with a much bigger mower, conditions it, we ted it to make haylage, then he rows it with his huge machine, bales and wraps it. Huw who works for me loads it with the handler onto my trailer and it is unloaded and stacked near the barn. I have to stick to the Glastir times for closing the fields mowing and regrowth before grazing. I notice that many people cut at the end of June weather permitting and make small bales of lovely sweet smelling hay. I made 80 big round wrapped bales this year and just 43 last year.

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  5. May I add that my haymaking (haylage) fits into the whole farm management- I use almost all of it myself, selling a few surplus bales. The muck from the cattle and sheep lambing inside (at least 80% straw and mouldy or uneaten parts of the baled haylage such as soft rush) is kept for at least 18 months outside on concrete and turned once or twice so it is composted and full of worms then spread after taking the hay crop in late July August on each of the 2 fields alternate years by the same contractor. I have my own muck spreader but it is so slow compared to the huge one the contractors have on balloon wheels and which they load with a JCB that I don’t use my own anymore, or ask Huw to use it! I have tried covering the muck heap but got a condominium of rats that was awful- I think it needs some dampness to beak down and harbour lots of worms the little dark red ones that colonise it after about a year. It becomes quite a small pile in the end about 1/3 of the original heap. I don’t have any slurry. I found that my fully dry hay is rather stalky as I must keep it standing so long before cutting (nearly 10 to 12 weeks) that the cattle and the sheep prefer haylage, a little more moist and softer. I have had an outbreak of conjunctivitis spread on the dry hay years ago amongst the sheep in the shed. Also there are plants such as Black Knapweed I think they may find easier to eat if not bone dry in hay. I understand why people may want to cut hay at about 8 weeks when it is peaking in its nutritive value and palatability.

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