Columns, In the Garden

First Cut Hay: A Glimpse into the Early Season Harvest

HARDWICK – This story was originally written to run in a Center for an Agricultural Economy newsletter in the summer of 2023, but was postponed in light of the July 10 flooding. That event and its aftermath defined the summer of 2023 in our communities. It has now been updated for 2024.

We are sharing this little piece of Vermont summer with you because the grass keeps growing and farmers are, or will soon be, busy harvesting and storing it.

photo by Silene DeCiucies
First cut Northeast Kingdom hay is being mowed in May.

As you travel local roads in early summer, you see farmers of all kinds scurrying to make the most of the longest days of Vermont’s short growing season. Produce growers are seeing lush crops of lettuce, green tomatoes are getting larger, and garlic scapes are showing up at co-ops and farmers markets around the state.

By then, our dairy farmer neighbors will have been busy since late May with the first and most important harvest of the year: first cut hay. Hay-type forages are northern Vermont’s most important crop, both economically and in terms of their footprint on the landscape.

With its cool summers and abundant precipitation, Hardwick and the surrounding area are marginal for raising most annual field crops typically fed to dairy cattle, but ideally suited to growing cool-season grasses and legumes.

Everyone recognizes the midsummer scenes of trucks and wagons loaded with square bales.

Dump trucks you see on the roads with chopped grass blowing off the top, tractors pulling roofed wagons and white plastic wrapped round bales in farm yards are all ways dairy farmers capture the grass, clover, and alfalfa that grow so willingly here and then need to be stored for our long winters.

It is a demanding, feverish activity; dodging rain and keeping machinery working to capture plants at the stage of growth when they are most nutritious to ruminant animals.

Cool season perennial grasses and legumes regrow several times a season after being harvested.

Most local hay ground is cut from two to four times each season. Each cutting has unique characteristics that impact its economic and feed value as it moves through ruminants to produce meat and milk.

There are mowing machines, rakes, balers, choppers and manure spreading equipment in hayfields from May through the early fall, but the plants produce most of their bulk and their highest content of palatable, leafy material in the weeks between when the soil temperatures pass 50 degrees Fahrenheit and the summer solstice.

The earliest cutting is called “first cut” and is the most critical harvest of the year for many area farms. Just like the spinach in the garden, these plants are leafy, tender, and full of sugars in cool weather, but are quick to enter a reproductive phase, “bolt,” or “head out” as the weather gets hotter.

Farmers do their best to catch the plants at the stage when the plant has produced a high amount of leafy biomass, but has not yet reached the reproductive bolt stage in order to maximize palatability and stored energy of the harvest.

It is a very short but critical harvest window. If missed, the feed rapidly loses quality– almost by the hour.

Farmers attempt to time their first cutting to strike a difficult balance: cut too early, and the chance to grow more of the best-quality crop of the season is missed. Cut at the right time and both bulk yield and nutritive quality are the best they can be. Cut too late, and the plant stops growing nutritious, leafy material and grows more and more stem that is biochemically similar to wood.

Ruminants can, amazingly, digest and metabolize plant fiber into the energy they need to live, make milk, and reproduce. They cannot do anything with wood.

Farmers who miss the forage quality peak because of equipment breakdowns, bad weather or many other, unforeseen circumstances, are forced to supplement feed with purchased grain or accept lower levels of milk production.

Both consequences negatively impact a farm’s bottom line in an already economically tight enterprise.

Dairy farmers in Vermont employ a variety of strategies to feed their cattle. Some raise corn or other annual crops to store and then feed to their animals throughout the year.

Most purchase at least some grains like dry corn, barley, and soybeans to augment their homegrown forages with the exception of a minority that feed only grass, grazed and stored–year round.

Whatever the strategy, minimizing the expense of purchased feed stuffs is critical to farm viability. First cut hay is foundational to that objective.

In 2023, late frosts and a dry May resulted in poor yields of first cutting hay on most farms in this region.

Farmers bought forages from outside the area, fed additional grain, cut back on cattle numbers and/or fed forages to milking cows that would be better suited to dry cows.

Dairy farmers remained resilient, resourceful, and hopeful that the rest of the season would bring more favorable conditions to offset the poor spring.

In an industry so deeply tied to the whims of mother nature, having a positive yet humble outlook is just another part of the job.

Many Vermonters enjoy a livelihood or lifestyle that is tied to the weather and the changing seasons. Haymaking is a beautiful embodiment of this seasonality.

The 2023 growing season added a spring drought, a late frost and catastrophic midsummer flooding to the usual challenges of harvesting a hay crop in this landscape and climate.

When late summer rolls in this August, so will third cut, or maybe the tail end of second or even first.

Look for fields of grass and clover growing leafy and lush to be cut when the sun shines and being stored for the long winter months ahead to feed happy cows.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the business and tradition of growing and harvesting grasses.

Silene DeCiucies is the farm business planner for the Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick.

Silene DeCiucies

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