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If you are struggling with the rising costs of buying in hay — and questioning its quality — it is worth investigating how to make hay on your own land.

The philosophy here is the same as with good home-made food — if you grow your own hay you know exactly what you’re feeding your horse.

Warwickshire farmer Richard Wakeham explains: “You may save a small amount of money by making it yourself, but it is more about the implications of knowing your own ground.”

James Tugg, a smallholder in Oxfordshire who makes around 250 bales off two acres, agrees: “Supervising haymaking on your own land means that not only do you know what’s in it, but also that it’s been dried properly.”

Richard warns that farmers who are used to making hay for livestock are likely to turn it less often.

“The more often you turn hay the more likely it is to be dust free and less mouldy,” he says. “And this is something that you can dictate with a contractor.”

Employing a farmer

To avoid the responsibility, cost and logistics of hiring haymaking equipment yourself — and the time learning how to use it — there is the option of employing a farmer.

You can find contractors who are happy to make hay from as little as one acre, but how much you can get off that is not clear-cut.

Hugh Goldsworthy, from Charton Manor Farm Contracts in Kent, estimates you could get 50-100 conventional small bales from an acre — but he reiterates that it’s “variable”.

Whether this is enough for your two horses will depend on for how much of the year they are kept in and what your remaining grazing is like. You will also need to make sure that you have sufficient grazing to last you through the summer, having set the haymaking field aside at the end of the winter.

Weather

Whether the field has been fertilised, what type of grass there is and how much rain there has been are all factors in determining your crop.

“Weather, weather, weather” is what the British Grassland Society (BGS) considers the biggest pitfall haymaking hopefuls should watch out for.

“If you only have a couple of acres, there is a chance you could lose it all,” says Richard.

“Although it’s rare, I’ve lost complete fields off the back of an inaccurate weather forecast.”

However, James points out that, when you’re dealing with a smaller area, the whole process can be done faster, meaning you’re relying on a shorter window of good weather.

Weather depending, an afternoon in mid-June is the ideal time to have the hay cut, according to the BGS.

“June is when the grass is freshest and at the peak of its goodness,” adds Mike Stevens from Pedley Hill Haylage and Farm Contractors.

Storage

Before committing to making hay on your land, realistically assess your storage situation. The ideal conditions are somewhere dry, free of rodents and protected from farm dust, according to the British Grassland Society (BGS). Andrew Delgado, who farms near Wimborne, Dorset, adds that it should be somewhere “nice and dark, with a bit of air”.

You can lose up to 30% of your crop through bad storage, Mike Stevens from Pedley Hill Contractors estimates.

The BGS adds: “Well-preserved hay can be judged by its colour — bright green or yellow — [will be] sweet in smell and absence of dust.”

It is crucial that you agree with your contactor before the process begins who will be stacking and storing the bales. “I know of someone who had 800 bales made and was left to do the stacking himself,” warns James Tugg.

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The benefits of haylage

Nowhere to store hay? Haylage could be your answer.

  • Plastic wrapping means it doesn’t need to be stored inside.
  • Assuming it’s made correctly, haylage has a higher nutritional value, meaning you will have to spend less on hard feed.
  • It is more palatable than hay, which means there is generally less wastage.
  • Because it can be baled quicker due to its increased moisture content, you are “weather-proofing your investment”, according to Warwickshire farmer Richard Wakeham. Mike Stevens from Pedley Hill Contractors adds: “Whereas hay can take seven days to make, haylage can be baled within three to four.”

This article was first published in the 20 June 2013 issue of Horse & Hound magazine