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Brainstorming Hay

Updated: Sep 13, 2019

The Questions

Every year, livestock farmers face the same issue - How to feed livestock through winter? And then the follow up questions - How much hay do I need? Where do I store the hay? How much wastage do I account for? What if I run out?

First Winter Contemplation

This is Skybrooke's first winter calculating hay needs and it's been somewhat challenging by myself, fearing that I‘ll not account for something and then the animals will starve! Says my dramatic, over imaginative mind. I've been researching for several months preparing for fall storage and sheep do better on second cut hay. I bought a square baler this year for less than would cost me to buy hay for a single winter. It's an old New Holland 273 and I'm so proud of it even though we've never used it! We HOPEFULLY have enough acreage to provide for our animals hay in a second cut. We have 16 acres, of which probably 7 are woods and 4.5 are fenced. We possibly have additional acreage that borders our farm if this isn't enough for us, but we're trying to make it work with what we have. But we haven’t had much rain in the last month, so I hope it grows and grows in the next few weeks!

I've met with the NC Extension office, with a dairy owner, and family farmers about their methods for maintaining a healthy, high producing pasture for both grazing and hay. The answers are all over the place, each addressing each farmers needs for various livestock. The challenge is taking everyone's suggestions and making it fit our needs as a new farm. Of the experts I talked to - none of them have sheep and bale their own hay.


So here we go. I've calculated these numbers based on a 150lb sheep (some are smaller) and the alpaca weighing the same eating 3% of their body weight a day. The Jersey cow I just went by what her previous owner said that she would eat per day - 15-20lbs a day. Starting hay Nov 1st through March 31st (152 days), I estimated the following based on a 40lb square bale:

Per Day Each Season Flock # of Sq Bales

Sheep 4lbs 608lbs 9,728lbs 243

Alpaca 4lbs 608lbs 3,040lbs 76

Cow 20lbs — 3,040lbs 76

Skybrooke's Winter Hay Total: 395

If we add in 5% wastage that makes it roughly 415 square bales. I currently have 10 bales that I bought for them to have now which they eat very little of but it’s there if they feel they need it.

I don’t have a record of the hay the land produced before now, so it doesn’t help me calculate what I’ll get in September for hay. If on an average pasture you get 50 square bales an acre and I have 6-7 acres to bale Then I should have around 300-350 bales. So I'll need to bale a little more than the land we have to make the difference. But the pastures being baled are not great this year - but we will get them there! We will probably end up with around 200 bales from all the land unless we get some rain!! Good thing our land borders family maybe we can persuade him to let us bale an acre or two of this his land since he doesn't have livestock. Please!

Even writing this out is helping - I didn't account for a calf needing hay! Oops!! That wouldn't have been good :).

We're planning on weeding the grazing pastures that are fenced and the open acres for hay. The debate is WHAT to seed this fall. Easy answer is fescue 32 with rye to have winter grass. After weeding there will be holes to fill so putting more fescue will patch those. Planting rye for this winter is great for reducing hay needs and still allows for winter grazing. I've read the issue is making sure in the spring, when rye is going out it has a growth spurt at the same time spring grasses will start to grow. It can be seen when the space between the grass turns white with root growth. So having animals graze an area and then mowing what they leave behind prevents the new grass from being chocked out by the taller rye.

We have a good foundation to grow on with a healthy mix now of fescue and crabgrass, but the grass isn't dense and needs to be seeded. Someone estimated that our grass as it is is about 5% protein. It hasn't been tested, but he said that he's seen plenty of fields and that's his guess. So it's filling bellies, but not much more than that in his opinion. Animals all need different amounts of proteins, fats, carbs, and vitamins depending on if they are pregnant, lactating, or on a maintenance ration.

This winter our ewes will be expecting lambs and lactating mid march. Our jersey will be in milk and need extra calories so our hay needs provide the nutrients they need or I’ll be supplementing with grain which increases cost. Will they be ok on any regular hay - yes probably, but we can better support our flock if we have the right grass and hay for them year round and can support them easier on less pasture.

So, step 1 is spraying weeds ASAP so that we can plant in September after second cut. Step 2 is over seed the pasture while letting the paddocks rest when possible to let the baby seedlings grow!

Another option suggested to us was to kill everything in our portion of the back pasture and plant winter wheat or oats. It would be ready for a spring harvest and is high protein for our jersey and sheep. The jersey will need approximately 18-20% protein ideally for the months following her calf arrival and milk production and having forage through the winter would be beneficial and "guarantee" that we have the hay we need in the spring of next year. Wheat hay can have as much as 18% protein and tastes sweet to they tend it eat it well. Orchard grass cut in the vegetative phase has just as much.

Teff grass is also a variety I think we're most likely to try this spring. Recommended to us by a local dairy farmer we'll get our first cut in 45-55 days after planting and will give 4-8 tons per acre depending on conditions throughout the growing season. If teff grass grows as well as he says (and he just harvested his fields) that's roughly 8,000lbs of hay per acre - 2 acres cut correctly through spring and fall, would meet our needs for all of the animals. Maybe even allowing us to sell extra or give to our family to use in repayment for letting us use their lovely tractor! That would more than cover our needs for the year with 9-14% protein and 55-64% digestible nutrients. But it's an annual grass, so we would have to pay to seed every spring.

I'm learning that the cut timing is crucial to nutrients in the hay. Cutting before the seed head comes saves nutrients for the animals. All of this is common sense to experienced farmers, but being new it's a foreign language learning types of grass and the difference between good and bad weeds. There's good science behind a productive pasture and I have a healthy respect for the farmers that know how to make their land work for them.

This is our first year cutting for our own livestock so it's all a big experiment - a researched experiment and we have family farmers to supervise :D - though less likely to help with the addition of the cow. <3 I know you still love me, Wayne!


Assuming the hay baling goes mostly as planned, I also have to look at hay storage. First, I thought about adding a lean to onto the barn we just built. If we added a 8ft wide cover onto the barns side, we can fit 180 bales in a 20x8 space with 5 layers of hay stacked. Not enough. But it does allow some hay to be placed close to the hay feeder and a covered area for my beautiful wheelbarrow and an area to milk the JERSEY cow we have! A luxury for next year. A friend of mine in the area, her family used to grow tobacco, but now have chicken houses. They had a few metal tobacco barns they weren't using anymore and said that I could have them as long as we moved it. So one of these is being moved to our farm and will be repurposed for hay storage. Perfect! And I'm so grateful for everything falling into place and generous farmer friends!

The tobacco barn is just over 10ft wide and 40ft long and is has a divider down the middle that can not be removed. I've calculated that I should be able to fit 39 bales per layer on each side of the divide. Comes to 78 bales per layer so in 5 levels all the hay we need will fit leaving plenty of room for extra hay! If my math is correct - so I better have someone check my figures.

We cleared an area in the woods on the right hand side of the driveway that we won't use for anything probably, near the metal building that is already there. Chase cleared the area and Wayne came in and leveled it. So it's all ready for delivery!

Most of you are probably bored to tears with all of this grass, hay, numbers etc. But! It's what is most important to be prepared for this winter. It will keep our animals healthy and growing lots of big lambs for the spring!

As a side note - everyone with cows keeps asking why we don't use round bales for this much hay. Several reasons: 1- I can't lift it! For the sheep, this is easier for me to manage and I have to be able to feed and care for the animals myself. This part is a one woman show and I can't get a round bale where I need it. 2 - We don't have a tractor to move a round bale around the farm. 3 - Sheep would waste so much of it without a ring and couldn't reach it with one - as far as I've seen. Square bales seem like extra work, but I don't mind it and I'm sure my muscles will be huge in no time!

If you have any suggestions - share!

Thanks you all for your support and interest in the farm watching it grow!

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