Heavy rains have heavy impact on hay and local farms


BRANDON—For folks who don’t know what haying is or wonder about those round white plastic rolls in fields or in barns or wonder about all those tires stacked on black plastic outside, let me elucidate. Anywhere in the world where animals cannot graze all year, animal owners, farmers, and ranchers have to preserve food for their animals.  For many animals, that food comes in the form of hay.  Here in Vermont, we “make hay while the sun shines.” 

Hay is dried grasses. Animals use the fiber and energy from dried grasses to sustain them. Dried grass also contains protein, the amount varying based on numerous factors. When making hay, farmers first cut the grasses. The next step is to aerate those grasses to get them to dry thoroughly.  There is a machine for this called a Tedder. The Tedder has spiked tines on it. It takes the lovely, neat rows of cut grasses and throws them around and fluffs it all up.  Now the hay is “tedded.”  

Once dry, these grasses are collected and stored.  Farmers use a tractor-drawn rake. It makes windrows, an ancient word for anything raked into rows and dried by the wind. If you have a crew, raking can immediately precede baling.  Baling is the gathering and pressing of the dried grasses into tight bundles. When I was young, baling was done by a simple machine that dropped bales on the ground tied up with rope called baling twine. Bales varied greatly in weight because a lot of them still had moisture in them. You’d hoist them onto a wagon or cart and stack them in the barn. Today, much of the lifting has been mechanized. Ejection balers threw the bales into the wagon. Quite dangerous at times for the people stacking inside the wagon! Round balers and huge square balers came next producing bales of 1,000 pounds or more.  These require some sort of front-end loader and trucks to transport them. Some balers have computers and injectors able to sense moisture content and add preservatives if the hay is too moist.

So, what do we do when it rains and floods and then rains again? There are two ways I know (I’m sure there are others, as farmers are always innovating) to still preserve grass under wetter conditions. Freshly cut grass generally contains more than 70% moisture by weight. Instead of drying it to less than 22% moisture (hay), you can cut grass and dry it out to 40-65% moisture. This product is called haylage or baleage. The first method uses a silage chopper to cut the fields, then to dump the grasses in cement bunkers, roll over it with a tractor, to pack it in tightly, then it’s covered with plastic and tires. More recently farmers are mowing the hay, tedding it if necessary, baling and wrapping the bales in plastic individually. By wrapping it in plastic it ferments but won’t spoil. Haylage requires some different equipment, either a baler with a wrapper or stand-alone wrapping machines. While haying usually requires 3-5 sunny, dry days in a row, haylage can be done in 2-3 dry-ish days. It’s not just rain that’s a problem; it’s also heavy dew and high humidity that affect grasses drying out. 

Drought years are tough because so little grows and pastures are poor or nonexistent. Really wet years are tough because nothing dries and you’re trying to bring in forage between rainstorms. Pastures may be great, but animals can get all sorts of foot issues from mud and wet conditions. 

How has this extremely wet summer impacted our farmers?

Joseph Tisbert, President of Vermont Farm Bureau and co-owner of Valley Dream Farm in Cambridge, Vermont said he “has never seen a year like this in his 32 years of farming here in Vermont.  I haven’t had three weeks of dry weather since May. I owe a huge thank you to my neighbor who cut hay for me then and we got in 3,000 bales. Since May I’ve only brought in another 1,000 bales. Normally I make 12,000 bales a year. My fields, which are never wet, are saturated. In places, the sod won’t hold my tractor up and I’m slipping and making ruts where I never have made ruts before. I sell all my hay.  I’m on the Vermont state list of hay sources. All I have right now is first-cut hay.” Joe anticipates a large hit to his own hay sales income and to that of other sellers across the state because production is so low. 

Here in Brandon, we have also faced constant rain since June, historic flooding in July, then more rain throughout July, August and now September. 

Wendy and Stephen Cijka of High Pond Goat Farm have 24 dairy goats. Their goats consume about 1,000 bales of hay annually. These bales are 40/50 second cut.  They buy their hay and expect a price increase from scarcity.  But they have a local source and aren’t worried about getting what they need. “We are at a higher elevation so our land drains well.  We haven’t had problems with the wet summer. However, our goats don’t like to be wet or have wet feet and so have spent most of their time in their barn this summer, even though they can come and go as they please. We were worried about our well going dry in June. All this rain has recharged our well nicely.”

Jamie Hamilton of Hamilton cattle company cuts his own hay for his grass-fed beef. 

“I have 250 Red Devons and Angus,” said Hamilton.  “Both breeds, originally from the U.K.  are hardy and raised on grass.” 

But Jamie has to feed them in winter. 

“I need 1,200 to 1,400 round bales of about 1,000 pounds each for my cattle for the winter. I’ve cut about 70% of my first cut this year and then wasn’t able to cut any more, except a tiny bit on fields that didn’t flood. Because of the flooding much of my farmland was rendered useless for the remainder of the season.  I normally get three cuts in. I’m worried about the quality of my hay this year. Quite a few of my fields flooded in July and I’m worried about toxicity in the hay. The floodwaters have all sorts of contamination. So, I’ll be testing my hay this autumn. If the hay is toxic, then it’s inedible for my cattle. I may be able to sell some of it at a huge discount for mulch hay, but that won’t come close to paying for the good quality replacement feed for my cows.  I normally produce more hay than I need so I’m able to sell hay as well as grass-fed beef. This year I will lose money from hay sales and may also have additional costs of buying non-contaminated hay.”

Amy Menard and Steve Dombrowski, who raise yaks at Cedar Rail Farm in Brandon, hire out the haying done on their fields and have made the switch from haying to haylage. 

JAMIE HAMILTON OF the Hamilton Cattle Company.

“We make baleage from our own hay fields. We pay a per-bale price to a local person who cuts, bales, and wraps our own hay for us. How much hay we use in any given winter depends on our herd size, and fall and spring pasture conditions, so it varies.  In general, we plan to have enough baleage on hand to be able to feed our animals for 220 days each year.  We have 15 yaks to overwinter.  We’ve never had our hay tested to determine its protein content.  Our yaks will need to eat the equivalent of 14 pounds of dry material per animal per day.  So, we estimate they consume 20 pounds per day of baleage. They seem to prefer baleage over dry hay which is good considering that our summers are getting wetter. 

We have sufficient baleage from the prior year. We don’t know if the price will increase but it may because of fuel costs and wrapping-plastic costs. This year will be the latest we have ever hayed.  We will only make a ‘first cut’ of hay,  and the baleage we will produce will likely be in the poorest condition in terms of feed of any we have ever made.  Making baleage is a more forgiving process than making dry hay.  But this year there has been even too much rain to make baleage: we haven’t had enough drying days for the fields themselves, along with soil conditions dry enough to support the weight of equipment needed without substantial damage to the fields and/or the equipment.

 This year’s wet conditions, while challenging, are better than drought or apocalyptic fires experienced elsewhere in the country.  No storms in our immediate area created property loss or damage for us.  The pastures regenerated well after grazing.  Local springs and running-water sources in pastures will have ample water in them over the course of the winter.”

One farmer described haying this year with a single word: “terrible.” He had 300 acres of fields with first-cut hay still to do as of a week ago. Let’s hope this promised run of 10 dry days actually holds up and our farmers can at least make haylage. 

 The Agency of Agriculture has a feed finder website’.  Here’s the link if you need to buy hay for your animals: https://cloud.agriculture.vermont.gov/FeedFinder/FindHay.aspx

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