By Lynn Byczynski
A good supply of hay is a great advantage on a vegetable farm. Hay can be used for moisture-conserving and weed-suppressing mulch, added to a compost pile to balance C:N ratios, and fed to livestock in winter. Because of its many benefits, and the expense of purchasing hay, growers often wonder whether they should grow their own.
Points in favor of growing hay:
- You can be sure it is not contaminated with herbicides, some of which can kill vegetable crops and carry over for more than a year.
- You can ensure that it has high-quality nutrition and is free of mold and pests. You don’t have to haul it from another farm or pay for delivery.
- You can save a lot of money compared to buying hay, assuming you already own the necessary equipment and storage space. Land that is not needed for crops can be put to good use.
- Haying prevents the establishment of woody plants that you would otherwise need to control in fallow fields.
- As part of a rotation, a legume/grass pasture will contribute nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
- You can graze livestock on your pasture as well as cut it for hay.
- The smell of new-mown hay is one of the sweetest fragrances in the world.
Points against growing hay:
- The work of mowing, raking, baling, and moving hay may occur at your busiest season for vegetable crops.
- You may need to buy, rent, or borrow the appropriate equipment.
- You may need to spread manure before planting, if a soil test indicates it.
- You will have to learn about when to cut and how to test moisture before baling.
- Establishment costs can be high for a large area.
- You may have to hire extra help to get the baled hay into the barn.
After weighing the pros and cons, you should talk to local experts including your Extension agent and neighboring farmers to determine what pasture mix is best for your climate and soil type. The purpose of the hay, whether it’s for livestock feed or mulch, will also determine which species to plant. A grass/legume hay meadow can produce for as long as seven years, so research your options carefully before you get started.
A good discussion about growing hay for your own use or as a business can be found on the Sheep’s Creek Farm website.
Lynn Byczynski is the editor of Growing for Market and the publisher of The Hoophouse Handbook.