Growing and harvesting hay crops may seem fairly easy to the uninitiated. But any hay farmer can tell you that doing what he/she does is by no means easy. There are far too many things capable of influencing crop yields Take the weather, for example. It can make farming hay a real challenge even under the best of circumstances.
Weather conditions in the Northeast and Midwest this summer are proving the point. Farmers are dealing with plenty of wet soil and constantly humid conditions. And as for actual rain, the Northeast and Midwest have already gotten more than their fair share for 2019. Conditions seem perfect for making farmers’ lives miserable.
Moisture Content is Always a Concern
Moisture is always a big concern among hay farmers. Hay contains at least some moisture when it is harvested. The trick for farmers is to cut the hay at just the right time. If it’s too dry, it may not last long enough to be stored or sold. If it is too wet, the moisture could invite all sorts of problems – not the least of which is mold.
A 20% moisture content is usually the ceiling. Anything above that and crop safety and quality is jeopardized. This is one of the reasons farmers make use of hay tarps for storage. It is why some of them build barns and others use portable storage facilities. They have to keep the hay dry until it is sold or used.
Mytee Products, an Ohio company that sells both hay tarps and moisture testers, explains that checking moisture levels is routine once crops are harvested. Farmers use state-of-the-art moisture testers that send electricity through a bail and then measure its return. The rate of return tells them just how much moisture is present.
Moisture and Combustion
Moisture is an obvious concern because it promotes bacteria and mold growth. Hay that gets too wet is prone to a loss of quality and volume. But there is another danger: combustion. As odd as it sounds, high moisture content can lead to spontaneous combustion in stored hay.
Spontaneous combustion is the result of biology. Let’s say you have a stack of bales with a moisture content in excess of 20%. It is quite likely that mold and bacteria are growing in the stack. That mold and bacteria put off heat as they reproduce. The heat can gradually build up until it sparks combustion.
Temperatures in the area of 125° or less are considered safe. Once a stack reaches 150°, there is reason for concern. Farmers start looking for ways to increase air circulation at this point. Sometimes they dissemble a hot stack as well.
Somewhere around 175° hot spots are likely to flare up. Now the farmer has a problem. Increased air circulation could make matters worse, but the hay has to be cooled down. The best advice at this point is to call the fire department and report a potential problem.
A Delicate Balancing Act
As you can see, harvesting and storing hay involves a delicate balancing act that isn’t always easy to master. Growers have a lot of great tools at their disposal, but sometimes even the best hay tarps and moisture testers just aren’t enough. Sometimes Mother Nature gains the upper hand and there is little growers can do about it.
This summer is proving to be challenging for hay farmers in the Northeast and Midwest. But they will overcome as they almost always do. Come winter, there will be plenty of hay stored away under tarps, waiting to be fed to hungry animals in the barn.