Hay Revisited

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181 bales under a tarpaulin cover as the rain batters down

Having revelled in the joy of making hay at the start of September, it is worth reporting what has happened to the crop since then. As soon as the grass was processed into bales, we moved the whole lot into a tall, narrow “dyke” so that the drying process could continue. Proper hay is supposed to have a moisture content of around 12%, and some of our stuff fell a little short of that mark. It was fascinating to note such variety in such a small field, and while some bales were crisp, light and fluffy, others were noticeably moist.

Damp hay can get very hot after it is cut, and it’s not uncommon for tightly packed haystacks to reach seriously high temperatures. My uncle’s haystack caught fire for this reason in the 1970s, and my grandfather’s hayshed near Auchencairn was reduced to cinders by the blaze. Stacking the bales outdoors to sweat off some heat takes the edge off this effect, and piling the bales in a long, thin line helps to disperse any heat build up.

There is no escaping the fact that the hay was made in the first week of September. The magical afternoon we had for baling was followed by a week of perpetual, hammering rain. The tarpaulins held the line, but there was plenty of unavoidable seepage. The bales grew extremely hot, and it was not hard to imagine what a fire risk this could have been in our hayshed. Water pooled around the bottom of the dyke, and it started to seem like disaster might still catch up on this year’s crop. I hadn’t realised that turning and baling the hay had only been half the story, and we were still a long way from success.

As soon as the weather changed, I hauled a hundred bales into the hayshed and stacked them loosely to keep the air circulating. Although the grass had grown a nasty-looking culture of white mould on the outside, the flakes inside felt cool and dry. Aware of “farmer’s lung” and the risks of breathing in too much of this powdery residue, I stood back from the dyke and wondered what to do. As much as I dreaded every rainfall, the hay which remained outdoors was surprisingly dry and seemed to be prospering. Of course the situation would have been more productive if it had been late June and the sun had continued to batter down, but this was a salvage operation and I was in too deep to change course.

In the end, I left half the hay outdoors and stacked half in the hayshed for almost three weeks before finally bringing it all in together. I honestly cannot now tell which bales were indoors and which were out, and there is no obvious lesson to take from the experiment – both seem to have reached a reasonable state of dryness and preservation. Some of the bales are very mouldy and may not be much use, but I think that perhaps 75% can be classified as acceptable, with maybe 10% as really quite good. I would be anxious if I planned to feed this hay to horses, but galloways seem to share the labrador’s greed, and there should be no problem when it comes to getting this forage inside the riggits.

Lessons have been learned for next year, and plans are already afoot to try something similar on a slightly larger scale in 2018 – I honestly cannot wait.

In the meantime, I went into the hayshed yesterday to see how it was doing and found a couple of bales covered in white-wash and fluffy blobs of down. It seems that the barn owl has decided that the stack is to his liking, and he has been regurgitating gobbets of bone and fluff across the bales and the neighbouring woodstack – all the more incentive to get a move on with building him a nest box.

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