Mulch Hay Experiment

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I’ve been experimenting this winter with a new system: using mulch hay for bedding instead of pine shavings. In the photograph above, the mulch hay is on the left, the feed hay on the right.

If you look closely, they are very easy to tell apart. The mulch hay is coarse and yellow, the feed hay fine and green.

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I have always used a bit of hay as bedding — the sheep inevitably pull hay from their feeders and this waste builds up on the floor of the stall. But this is the first year I’ve deliberately bought hay to use as bedding.

In other areas, farmers use straw. I did myself ten years ago. (For those who don’t know, straw is the leftover stalks when cereal grain is harvested. You can buy wheat straw, oat straw, barley straw, etc.  Straw stalks are hollow, easily dried, and make excellent bedding.) Straw was always expensive in this area where not much grain is grown, but in recent years the cost has become prohibitive. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (D.E.C.) has decreed that roadside construction can no longer spread hay as mulch on newly planted slopes.

Why not? Well, hay is made from other grasses and legumes (timothy, orchard grass, alfalfa) that are cut just before the seed is mature. Each bale of hay, therefore, is full of seeds, whereas in straw, the seeds — the grains — have been removed in the harvest. By insisting on straw, the D.E.C. is trying to control the possibility of invasive plants. This is a laudable goal, of course. (Though sometimes the bureaucracy can get ridiculous. In 2003, I was told by a state biologist that I should seed my land and then mulch with straw, not hay. “You do understand,” I replied, “that I am trying to grow a hayfield?” He laughed and conceded the point.) Still, with the state buying every bit of straw that farmers can produce, the cost has skyrocketed.

So, no more straw for me.

For the past ten years I have mostly used pine shavings from our local lumberyard and sawmill as bedding. At first I got a cut rate if I bought 100 bales at a time. Then the cut rate disappeared. I know all about increased prices so I wasn’t overly surprised or perturbed. Pine shavings are light, fluffy, sweet-smelling, and dry. They are easy to muck and lift when wet. The only real problem with pine shavings is… they are pine.

My thin, rocky soil is already so acid that almost nothing will grow. Spreading pine shavings is not a big step up from spreading pine needles. This was brought home to me when my friend Larry gave me his entire bedding pile a few years ago. It took us days to load and truck twenty tons of waste bedding to my farm, and then more days to spread it all on my north field. I had been very excited to think of all this fertility moving onto my land, and I couldn’t wait to see the result.

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The result was imperceptible. Surely the added organic matter in the soil was a plus, but I had to take that on faith. One factor was that Larry’s barn is home to pampered thoroughbreds belonging to a wealthy owner. Their stalls are cleaned so frequently and religiously that the waste bedding was almost entirely pine shavings with relatively little manure or urine. The cleanings from my cattle and sheep stalls are much filthier richer.

However, this experience of backbreaking toil and invisible result made me question using pine shavings at all.

Then, last summer, my hay man Rick brought me a load of 40 bales of fresh-cut hay. The farm where he works had run into equipment problems and hadn’t started baling until late in the season. The hay was yellow, coarse, and stemmy. My animals would not eat it. My cow Dorrie went into ketosis (a dangerous situation, due to not enough calories, which can lead to death). While I poured polypropylene glycol and bottles of Karo syrup down her throat to save her, I called around for better hay — and, as I could not feed the poor hay, I began using it as bedding.

Hay stems are smaller and less hollow so mulch hay is not as perfect for bedding as is straw. However for my purposes it has some advantages: it is far cheaper, and it is full of seeds. I will always want hay seeds on my property.

Using Rick’s coarse hay, I learned that compared to pine shavings, too, hay has some disadvantages. It is more time-consuming to spread, as you have to pull apart each flake. It is bulkier and much heavier to muck. It is nowhere near as absorbent. However, mulch hay also has some advantages. It is half the cost. A two-inch thick layer of hay is warmer than pine shavings — shavings are like cotton; once wet, they’re wet through — whereas hay drains and the top layer feels relatively dry. Finally, hay is far better future food for my soil.

When Rick’s hay ran out, I decided to try to buy some mulch hay. First I tried a few bales from the lumberyard. Unfortunately, those bales were so full of sticks and brush that not only were they not useful, I became alarmed, wondering what pernicious weed plants I might be importing onto my farm. I have never forgotten my vet, David, telling me that he cannot use the fields on his farm as they have been taken over by wild parsnip, a toxic, Eurasian invasive weed. Thus I began searching on Craigslist, and that’s how I found George.

George is a dairy farmer from Gouverneur, New York, ninety minutes away. He grows reed canary grass and sells it as mulch hay. (I was familiar with reed canary grass — Rick once brought me bales as part of my hay order and was baffled when I told him my animals would not eat it.) Reed canary grass is also coarse and yellow and the larger stems are hollow. It has many of the advantages of straw, at the price of mulch hay.

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Reed canary grass is not uniformly golden so does not create the beautiful, bright, picturesque look of straw…

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… but it keeps my animals dry and warm. I like it a lot, and I like George, who is a nice man of about my age.

(George is not talkative but he has thirty years’ experience running his dairy farm of 130 cattle and has given me good advice. In our first conversation I told him about my poor soil and how I was hoping to use the mulch hay. “You’re looking for more organic matter,” he said, nodding. There are few folks around here with whom I can chat about organic matter in my soil. I immediately trusted him and a couple of times I have emailed him to pick his brain. The last time he delivered hay he arrived late due to bad roads, after I’d had to leave for a doctor’s appointment. The poor man had to unload the sixty bales into the barn alone. George did not complain but wrote a note:  “You have quite a few animals in that barn and they all look very good, Somebody is working hard!!” It felt like an award. I glowed.)

Meanwhile, the increased bulk of the mulch hay has made my manure pile grow exponentially. It’s only been manageable because my friend Damon has stopped out every two weeks to consolidate it with my tractor and keep the driveway clear.
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He pushes it into a tall pile.

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Then I start all over again, wheeling and dumping more heavy loads in front.

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The pile is now about 7 feet high in the back and about thirty feet long.

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It is exciting to think of the manure + hay mixture feeding all my fields in the future. Every day as I struggle out the door with another heavy, wobbly load, I think to myself: I can’t wait to see how my land responds to this wonderful dressing!

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