Meditation, community, good hard work—put a lot of hay in while the sun shines.

The Zen of Hay

by Remy Tumin

The Zen of Hay

Elizabeth Cecil

Sometimes the sun is so soft you want to wrap yourself in it like a blanket. It’s on days like that where a late afternoon swim is calling your name right before it’s time to head home for a simple summer dinner.

But on a day just like this in the summer, as the sun begins to set, the Morning Glory Farm crew is still out in the fields baling hay. As they follow the baler, stalks of hay stick to their salty tanned skin. They have to finish what they’re doing while the weather is still good and the hay is dry enough for storage. It takes at least three clear days to complete a full cut, one for cutting, one for drying and one for baling. “When I learned to hay in the 1960s and 1970s from my uncle Leonard, he was doing things the way they were doing it in the 1940s and 1950s,” Morning Glory Farm owner Jim Athearn says. “We cut it with a sickle bar and then used a side delivery rake to turn it once, and we’d keep raking it until it was dry. Now, people find that a very slow process,” says Jim. The Morning Glory Farm farmer admits it’s an old technology, but after getting 4,000 bales last summer and 5,800 the previous summer, a variation of the old ways works for his large operation. Hay is traditionally harvested by cutting grass, stacking the hay and then having the tedder come through to sling the grass up in the air so that a new surface can face the sun to dry. The hay is raked into windrows (long thin piles) when it’s reached the right balance between dryness and moisture. A baler then compacts the hay into square or round bales.

Haying is all about finding the right balance between cost, moisture and timing, and with foggy down-Island fields and an antiquated system, traditional haying has its difficulties.

“I remember one time with a field of dry hay and sunset approaching and the usual pressures that accompany haying, and the baler wasn’t working,” Jim remembers fondly. “I was messing with the baler and I thought to myself a bad day of haying is better than a good day of other things. Sure there’s the challenge of getting a baler going and you think I’d be bummed out, but we all love haying.”

Gone are the days when Island farmers swung their scythes through the standing grass or imported seed from England at the turn of the 20th century to distinguish the sown crop from the wild variety. The original hay fields were located on land with few boulders and were small in size, although a few ten-acre sized fields could be found dotting the landscape.

Mowing machines first appeared on the island in the 1870s and 1880s, but most Islanders used horses to draw them through the fields. And not so long ago, 1948 to be exact, Eddie Cottle drove the first baler on the Island around for custom calls.

Allen Whiting uses the traditional method as well, raking the windrows into square bales rather than round bales because he likes keeping the hay in the barn to insulate it for the sheep. He harvested 2,500 bales last season from 20 acres of fields of timothy and alfalfa in West Tisbury.

“The sheep seem to love hay from here,” Allen says, adding, “I’ve loved haying from the beginning to end.”

He welcomes rain in between cuttings, but too much of it can spoil a harvest, and he’s always up for a bit of experimenting. Allen will be irrigating in July for the first time this year; he admits every batch of hay surprises him in some way or another.

“There’s nothing more exciting for any farmer than a good bale of hay,” Allen proudly proclaims. “It smells good and feels good.”

A few farms on the Island like Morning Glory and the Whiting Farm still use the traditional method, but there’s a new system that allows for haymaking to be done in one or two days.

Farms such as Mermaid Farm, the Farm Institute and the Allen Farm have turned to the faster and more efficient process called haylage. Also known as balage or sometimes silage, hay harvested for haylage can be cut earlier in its maturity, still green with moisture content between 55 and 65 percent. The hay is then stuffed into a large plastic sleeve and left to ferment along the edge of fields for 30 days.

The balers make round bales four feet wide in diameter, which are then wrapped three times in a thin, white, stretchy plastic material. Many confuse the names of silage and haylage because of the compression technique. When hay is cut and stored in a silo, it’s naturally compressed by its weight, where as the haylage is compressed into a plastic sock.

“The nice thing is that you can make it earlier in the season because it only takes a day to make,” Allen Healy, owner of Mermaid Farm says. “It’s preserved very well and you can keep if for a couple of years.”

“Last year I made one cut in the morning and I baled it in the afternoon,” he says. “Next year I’ll cut it mid-day one day and bale it the next, giving it a whole lot more time to dry.”

He prefers haylage to dry hay because cutting the grass sooner means higher protein content–once the sun begins to dry the hay, proteins begin to break down. One difficulty is figuring out what the right balance between the protein and carbohydrate content is, or the energy level, for his dairy cows. Depending on the time of year, Mermaid Farm’s feta cheese and yogurt will have different tastes because of the animals’ hay intake.

And he has help. The farmer shares his tricks of the trade and machinery with Clarissa Allen and Mitchell Posin at the Allen Farm and Matthew Dix and Rebecca Miller from North Tabor Farm. They’ve formed a sort of collaborative, sharing the baler, mower and wrapper.

“When the sun comes up in the morning, by night time the carbohydrates go down into the root system,” Mitchell says. “Sugars come from carbohydrates, and so when the sugars go into the grass, the animals love it and you want to cut it then.”

Mitchell recommends cutting grass after 11 o’clock in the morning, and then baling it 24 hours later.

“I think of hay as you’re taking nutrient from the land. If an animal eats it, ingests it, and poops it, it’s like a give-and-take sort of thing,” says Mitchell. “I want to do hay where I also graze, but not hay in the same place. It’s hard for us because we don’t have a lot of fertile unbelievable land here. That’s the thing about haying that world. In a way you’re mining its nutrient, and you really have to put it back.”

The nutritional cycle starts in the loamy soil of Vineyard land, but grass is the first material consumed by the animals we eat. Animals are considered the intermediary between humans and grass, but the energy provided to humans by the animals is then given back to the land by keeping perennial grasses, helping maintain the natural productivity of the soil.

It used to be that ruminant animals were the only way humans could digest high nutrient grasses, but as local food advocate Michael Pollan points out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the onslaught of annual crops more than ten thousand years ago removed animals as the intermediary. With the development of agriculture came the evolution of nutrition packed seeds that humans could digest without the help of livestock.

Even with new technologies like haylage, grass-feeding animals is a fervent tradition still held onto by many Island farmers. And it’s a win-win situation for Mitchell: he’s haying for the first time in 30 years and is able to have his land reach a full nutrient cycle.

“It’s a great smell, it’s a sweet smell, and the animals just attack it,” he mentions. “Our job is to make it as good as you can. You’re only fooling yourself if you’re screwing around with your animals.”

Mitchell said his livestock would eat cardboard if they were given it, but the responsibility of feeding animals something nutritious is on the farmer. Most farmers on the Island grow alfalfa, clover, and grass hay, but alfalfa is referred to as “the queen of the forages.”

“It’s a natural nitrogen fixer in the soil and is very beneficial because it has the ability to have a higher protein and higher energy level than grasses,” Jon Previant, executive director of the Farm Institute says.

In addition to the protein and energy levels in the hay, fiber is equally as important in the nutritional balance of the feed. The fiber is important to cattle because it prevents them from getting acidotic; the amount and quality of the fiber controls how much they can eat.

“If they’re restricted in intakes, they’re restricting other nutrients,” Jon says, such as crude proteins.

Like the moisture content, it all comes back to the timing of the cut. The plant reaches a maturity point when the maximum amount of nutrients are available. If a farmer misses that point, the value of the feed will continue to decline until it becomes straw.

“The idea there is to get it put up at the right time for quality and at the right moisture so that it will go through fermentation in an anaerobic process,” Jon explains. “Oxygen is what causes the rot and mold.”

“Once it’s gone through fermentation and completion, then it’s pretty good. It’s like once you’ve made wine and opened the bottle it takes a long time for it to go bad. Tt may not taste as good the second or third day but it doesn’t turn into vinegar over night,” Jon says of how long the haylage lasts.

“You want to match up the quantity of animals you have with the size of a package you’re offering. It wouldn’t make much sense to put a 1,200 pound bale for two cows. They’d be working at it for a long time.”

Feeding animals is the single largest expense of livestock operations, Jon explains, and is happy to have people like Allen helping him with the fields. Allen hayed for the Farm Institute last season, and will do so again this spring.

An animal should eat roughly three percent of its body weight daily, so a 1,400 pound cow should eat around 42 pounds of hay per day, and a 130 pound sheep about four pounds of hay. This rough guideline changes according to hay quality, the activity level of the animal, and the environment where the animal is raised.

If it’s an especially long winter with a poor hay crop and high hay prices, animals are sometimes sent off for slaughtering if the farmer can’t afford to keep it any longer.

The Farm Institute bought 19 tons of square bales at $0.15 a pound to supplement their own supply this past winter. Mature cows are capable of eating 40 or more pounds a day of hay, and with the farm raising many of their cattle for slaughter, the cost adds up quickly. Jon said they could have purchased cheaper hay in large round bales but the tonnage would have required another trip, or worse, three, because of the bulk and shape of the round bales.

“Farmers have always helped each other out with harvesting and haying,” Jon says, reflecting on his home on Martha’s Vineyard. “That’s the nature and beauty of farm communities, and certainly on the Island.”