Cold Wet May, Barn Full of Hay

"Cold Wet May, Barn Full of Hay."

I’ve heard this said at least a hundred times in the eleven years that we have been dairy farming - sometimes from our experienced farming elders, but more often from younger people repeating what they’ve heard from those experienced elders. The phrase has that weighty ring of an oft-proven fact - a guiding principle you can always depend on year in, year out. I always assumed that it was a good thing - that cool temperatures and adequate moisture in May created perfect grass-growing conditions, and by the first week of June you’d be happily mowing extremely high quality hay. And that phrase is always offered up as an encouragement - the weather might be miserable right now, but at least you’ll have a Barn Full of Hay! What dairy farmer doesn’t want a Barn Full of Hay?

But now it’s June 6th, and we have a fire burning in the woodstove. It’s 38 degrees and raining, and has been for the bulk of the last two weeks. We had 2” of snow on Mother’s Day, and an inch of dime-sized hail 7 days ago.  I have pulled my long underwear back out of storage so many times now that they now have a special place of honor in the closet where I can grab them on short notice. It is no longer just a cold, wet May, it’s a cold, wet June. 

As far as I know, our experienced farming elders do not have a catchy phrase for "Cold wet June…”  At this point, it might be “Cold wet June, wearing longjohns in summer makes you crazy as a loon.” Paul suggested “Cold wet June, plan that vacation soon.” Georgie and Dickens, the barn cats, say “Cold wet June, we are grumpy because our feet are wet and the mice are hiding and so we are going to express our frustration by embalming the farm shop freezers with muddy footprints.” But we all know that cats can’t rhyme, so you weren’t expecting anything very clever from them anyway. 

Now that it is in fact a cold, wet June, I have a new understanding of the traditional phrase. I will explain - but first, some key background about grass-fed dairy cows. Modern dairy cows, who we have bred to produce more milk than is needed to raise one calf, require a very specific balance of protein and energy (carbohydrate) in their diets in order to produce that extra milk. If that balance is off, the function of their rumen - the largest of their four stomachs, and the one where most of the conversion from food to useable nutrition happens - is compromised. Unhappy rumen = unhappy cow, and most likely, unhealthy cow. Most dairy cows, who are fed either corn silage or grain as the bulk of their diet, are easy to balance - add soy for protein, and a bunch of corn silage for energy; mix and feed. But grass-fed cows need to have that balance happen all in the grass. Protein is not that difficult - early spring grass and clovers, while in their first burst of growth, can produce such high protein levels that if they are not properly balanced with energy, the cows can essentially go on the Atkins diet (yes really!), and start losing weight rapidly. In cows it is called ketosis and it can be fatal. So a grass based dairy farmer’s focus is on producing the right level of energy to balance that protein. That’s the hard part - and a big reason why dairies went to feeding mostly grain and corn silage in the first place. High energy hay needs to be harvested early, while it is still in a fast-growing vegetative state - grasses before they start forming seedheads, and legumes (clovers) before they start flowering. In addition, once a grass plant starts to produce a stem and seedhead, the hay begins to lignify (that is - become more like wood - like lignin), and not only protein and energy levels, but the digestibility and the palatability of the hay drops significantly. Which means the cow doesn’t like to eat it as well. Which means she eats less. Which means she makes less milk. But it is not just earliness. On top of that, the hay must be grown on extremely fertile soil, so the plants are producing and storing excess sugars through photosynthesis - enough sugar for themselves, and additional sugar to trade with other beings in the soil biome for nutrients they can’t produce themselves. It also must be harvested so the plant can do the maximum amount of photosynthesizing and storing sugars on harvest day before it is cut, and wilted quickly, so it doesn’t use up those sugars trying to stay alive before it gets to the correct dryness. 

So what is the drawback to harvesting hay early? You got it - You Get Less than a Barn Full of Hay. Cutting hay in late June might not get you good milk-cow hay, but it will get you LOTS of hay. So when you see folks out harvesting hay in late June or July, you know they are likely selling hay for horses, or for beef animals and heifers, who are only growing, and not both growing themselves, but growing a calf, and making milk. It’s quantity over quality. It’s the difference of a literal Barn Full of Hay. Which from this damp and chilly perspective, that no longer seems like a good thing. Unfortunately, the most truthful catchy phrase might be "Cold wet June, better arrange for some good quality purchased hay soon.”

This past weekend, we managed to squeak out a little bit of haymaking - around 50 round bales, - but three quarters of our fields still need to be cut. It seems like an awful lot to finish by June 15th - which is 9 days from now. But maybe, just maybe, it will turn 75 degrees and sunny this weekend. We’ll miraculously produce the whole 200 round bales we need from this first cutting. And though we’ll be out past dark baling and wrapping, baling and wrapping, it will be under the clear sky of a warm starry night, with the last of the peepers singing to keep us awake. And we’ll have a Barn Partially Filled with fantastic quality Hay. Which is exactly what we want. Keep your fingers crossed for us.