Make hay while the sun shines

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “you’ve got to make hay while the sun shines”? You might think it’s a figure of speech, but to a farmer, it’s the gospel truth. The definition of hay is dry-cured fodder for animals, and the only way to cure the hay is to dry it in the sun. In the winter, the hay is the primary feed for grazing animals such as cattle, sheep, goats and horses.

What exactly is in hay?

Hay is made up of grass, legumes or other plants. The actual content of the hay depends on the region of the country, the method of harvesting and the type of livestock that will be eating the hay. In Ohio’s Amish Country, we have plenty of rainfall so native grasses are generally very common.

Horse hay is generally made up of grasses such as timothy and orchard grass. Horses that are working hard, either in the field or in the buggy may require a richer blend with more energy. Heifer or Dry Cow hay is also mostly lower-quality grass (by the way, a heifer is a cow that has not had its first calf.) Dairy cow hay is usually rich in alfalfa and other high protein/high energy crops such as field peas or forage oats. Dairy cows and other lactating livestock have high energy requirements and need the boost in nutrition.

The sweet smell of Alfalfa

Alfalfa is an important crop for livestock forage

Alfalfa is an important crop for livestock forage

Alfalfa is one of the most common crops you may find in Ohio’s Amish Country, due to the many dairy farms in Wayne, Holmes and Tuscarawas counties. It’s a deep green bushy legume that is not only excellent fodder but enriches the soil because it returns nitrogen to the soil. Nitrogen is an important component of commercial fertilizers so raising alfalfa reduces the amount of fertilizer needed for the next crop (often corn).

Cut alfalfa has a distinct scent that is unmistakable. The next time you roll through the back roads of Amish Country, look for a drying field of mowed alfalfa. Even with the windows rolled up, you’ll smell the rich sweet scent of sun-cured hay.

How to make hay

Amish and “English” farmers have several methods of making hay. First, the hay must be cut. Back in pioneer times, hay was mowed by hand with a scythe, but now they use horse-drawn or tractor-drawn implements to mow the hay. Amish farmers may still use a sickle-bar mower which has a horizontal set of blades that move rapidly back and forth to mow the hay. Alternatively, they may mow with a haybine which requires a power cart (a horse-drawn cart with a diesel engine). The difference between the two is that a haybine has rollers that will crush the grass to aid curing.

Work goes faster when three teams of horses hay mow at one time.

Work goes faster when three teams of horses mow hay at one time.

The hay needs time to dry so they only mow when they weather forecast is for warm, sunny and breezy days. After a day or so of drying, the hay can be fluffed up with an implement called a tedder. It tosses the hay in the air to get air to the bottom layers of grass that haven’t had direct sun.

After more drying time, the next step is to rake the hay. This rolls the bottom layers to the top for drying and prepares the hay to be harvested. Some of the more conservative Amish farmers may fork the hay by hand onto a flat wagon and which is then unloaded as loose hay into the barn for storage.

However, many farmers bale the hay into small rectangular bales or into large round bales. Small bales must be loaded onto a wagon by hand, then stacked in the barn (again by hand). Round bales are simpler to bale, but must be collected with a tractor with a loader. All dry hay should be stored inside a barn or under a tarp to prevent mold. Moisture can cause mold to grow on the bale or inside it.

What are those giant marshmallows?

Wrapped hay may be preserved for up to a year.

Wrapped hay may be preserved for up to a year.

On almost any trip to Ohio’s Amish Country, you’ve probably noticed those big white round “marshmallows”, either stacked by a barn or in rows along a field. They’re actually hay bales that have been baled wet and then sealed in plastic. It’s similar to wrapping food in a zip-lock bag. Inside the air-tight plastic wrap, the hay ferments but does not spoil. It’s a way to preserve good quality fodder even if the weather is not optimal for drying. It can be fed to cows and to some extent sheep or goats, but it is not feed for horses. Horses must have dry, mold-free hay or they can become sick and die.

Learn more about horse-drawn farming at Horse Progress Days

Mowing hay at Horse Progress Days

Mowing hay at Horse Progress Days

Believe it or not, but there are technological advancements being made in horse-drawn equipment. A good way to learn about current techniques is at Horse Progress Days in Mount Hope, Ohio on July 4 and 5, 2014. You’ll see new equipment for horse-drawn farming, demonstrations, a breed parade, hear speakers discuss horse care and training and more.


If you’re hungry, you might even sample homemade ice cream, made on a machine turned by a Haflinger horse. Fun and educational – we can’t wait!




2 thoughts on “Make hay while the sun shines

  1. I really love getting these information items. I copy and save them. I think they are very interesting. Thank you. Delores miller

  2. Thanks, Delores! Hopefully, folks will get a sense of of what life is like out here in Amish Country. It’s not nearly as shocking and sensational as certain TV shows portray. Those are the exceptions, not the rule.

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