Well folks, it is well and truly hammering down outside and so here's the promised blog on hay making. We were all fortunate as there was a window/break in the weather. Week before last saw a fine spell, 3 good winning days and a couple of softer days. What on earth am I talking about I hear you say? Well, a winning day is heat and air. Sunshine which actually has some heat behind it and a nice dry breeze. Ideal conditions for winning hay, although a heavy crop takes more than three days of these conditions to make good hay. Softer weather is exactly that, overcast, weak sunshine and a soft or damper air. Not what a farmer would wish for if trying to make hay but totally acceptable for silage.
Hay - what is it? Well dried out grass basically, nice crispy stuff with no soft green grass in it. Silage? A greener moister version of hay. To confuse you further there is then haylage - a superior version of silage, very close to being hay but just not quite dry enough.
When I first came into the farming business all grass was cut and made into hay, small oblong bales moved by hand. Round balers were getting a hold away in-bye but the hill farms were still muddling along with the traditional small bales of hay. Some farmers were beginning to experiment with big round bales of grass placed inside very big plastic bags which were tied to keep the air out, this stuff got the name of silage and it quickly caught on to the point wrappers were produced enabling these bales to be basically cling wrapped ensuring no air got into the bale and so preserving it over the winter months. A huge step forward for everyone.
Why go to all that bother when traditionally hay was always made? Good question. Hay is dried out grass, nice and crispy - there's your answer. Poor weather in the summer months can have your hay crop ruined in days, a problem faced by farmers for generations not just since the days of 'global warning', 'greenhouse gases' and the threat of 'we are doomed'
Long before the days of highly paid government scientists travelling to our arctic regions and concluding the ice was melting because they were breathing on it our farmers have struggled with inclement weather conditions throughout the summer months. Before hay was baled, in the days when pikes (piles of hay)were the thing, there are tales of hay washing down the North Tyne river due to flooding. You could go back as far as farming history would allow and there will have been seasons when the crop was ruined. Silage has saved the day.
You may have guessed that one thing the farmer really doesn't want is rain once the grass is down, dampness can be accepted, invariably has to be accepted but wet can cause the brow to furrow and grey hairs to sprout.
Years back there was a lot of dusty hay of poor feeding value, having been rained on and more rained on, turned and thrown about the field with tractors to enable to dry out then rained on again. If baled when too damp it would go mouldy and heat in the hay shed. Baled when too green it would also heat and come out in the winter the colour of tobacco, although this was readily acceptable to the livestock, they seemed to love the 'burnt' hay. Mouldy hay was a different matter, animals picking through it to find something they were happy to digest. There was also the problem of self combustion, oh yes, fill a shed full of damp stuff and it'll heat with the possibility of fire. The tobacco bales already mentioned would have been very close to causing a fire in the hay shed. Heating bales also move causing the front of the hay shed to fall out and re stacking being necessary.
Silage has been a god send to farmers, enabling them to pick up their grass before it is ruined by rain. Grass can be cut and picked up with the baler straight away if necessary although most prefer to give it the opportunity to wilt. Once air tight it will be preserved until required for feeding, however, get a hole in the bag/wrap and problems arise, fermentation, sour bales and we're back to the stock picking through it to find something palatable. Too much contamination and the bale is ruined completely - unfit for consumption.
Silage pads are fenced off to ensure no sheep or cattle can nibble at the wrapping, unfortunately vermin such as rabbits and crows can still make a mess of a heap of bales. Sticky patches get applied when holes are noticed in the hope of keeping the air out. Children are NOT allowed to play on the heaps (most probably a health and safety issue in this day and age anyhow), we don't want the kids hurt but we definitely don't want the wrap torn.
There is a down side to silage, especially on hill farms. They are big, heavy and require a tractor to move them. Not ideal when the snow is deep and the sheep out bye are hungry. A small bale of hay can be picked up by hand, slung over the shoulder and carried. In many ways the small bale is irreplaceable, it has it's place the farm and it always pays to try and get some every season - just in case.
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