Beyond autumn afternoons filled with watching football games while snuggled up on the sofa with a cup of tea and a blanket, haying season in the Northern Plains is hands down my favorite time of the year. As I turn down the gravel road towards home, I am filled with a view of our small valley filled with large round hay bales. Approaching even closer to home, I roll down the windows to catch a whiff of the sweet essence that only freshly cut alfalfa can provide. It is a quintessential part of rural life.
“Make hay while the sun shines” says the old saying and we take it seriously in these parts. While the livestock graze on lush green grass, it may seem trivial to harvest hay in the field next door, but when winter comes we are always thankful that we put up a decent hay crop. And so, every year, sometime in June depending on the weather, the region, and the grass/forage species, ranchers across the Northern Plains bring out their haying equipment and begin to prepare for the winter.
In this area, making hay is usually done on a large scale. Smaller size ranches and hobby farms may tend to put up small square bales, but the majority of hay by weight takes the form of large round bales. The hay mixture can consist of native or introduced grasses, small grains such as barley grown specifically for this purpose, or the most well known of all – alfalfa. It is grown in both dryland conditions (relying only on precipitation for moisture) or in irrigated conditions in the river bottoms or under sprinklers.
The vast majority of the hay harvested stays within the region, being used for winter feeding of beef cattle and sheep. The higher quality hay such as the irrigated alfalfa is sometimes used for the small number of dairies within the region or is used by those stabling horses. Driving in the region after haying season through late fall can be a daunting task – trucks loaded with large round bales seem to dominate the highways and must be maneuvered around with caution.
And so as another season of hay harvest winds to a close, I take a minute to savor the smell of the freshly cut alfalfa that my husband laid down just hours ago. I look down the long windrows of hay yet to be baled and I watch with wonder as the baler magically kicks out yet another round bale for us to add to the stack in the hay yard. I know that when winter comes I will gleefully watch the cows munch on the still green stems as another storm approaches – and I’ll think back to the warm sunny days of summer when the only thing on our minds was the brief but busy haying season that filled our valley with countless bales of hay.