First Cut Hay: A glimpse into this early season harvest

Note: This piece was written to run in an early-summer newsletter, but was postponed in light of the July 10 flooding. Though the flood and its aftermath have defined the summer of 2023 in our communities, we would still like to share this little piece of Vermont summer with you (with a few updates) because the grass keeps growing and farmers are still busy harvesting and storing it amidst the chaos of recovery.

By Silene DeCiucies
CAE Farm Business Planner

Image of a red mower in a field cutting hay

As you travel the local roads in early summer, you are seeing 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 coops and farmers markets around the state. But your dairy farmer neighbors 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. 

A photo of Red Clover, a flower with a purple top and green leaves and the copy "Red Clover" over the image.

Everyone recognizes the midsummer scenes of trucks and wagons loaded with square bales, but the dump trucks you see on the roads with chopped grass blowing off the top, tractors pulling roofed wagons, and the round bales wrapped in white plastic in farm yards are all forms of dairy farmers’ efforts to capture the grass, clover, and alfalfa that grow so willingly here and store it for our long winters. It is a demanding, feverish activity–dodging rain and keeping machinery working to capture these 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, and most local hay ground is cut between two to four times each season. Each cutting has unique characteristics that impact its economic value and its feed value as it moves through ruminants to produce meat and milk.

Photo of timothy, a grass that is brown and looks kind of like wheat, with a fuzzy green background behind the image.

You will see mowing machines, rakes, balers, choppers and manure spreading equipment in hayfields 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 the soil temperature passing 50 degrees Fahrenheit and the summer solstice.

This earliest cutting is called ‘first cut’ and is the most critical harvest of the year for many of your neighboring farms. Just like the spinach in your 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. This is a very short but critical harvest window, and if missed, the feed rapidly loses quality– almost by the hour.

A field of a wispy looking grass that is green, brown soil is visible beneath the grass.

Farmers attempt to time their first cutting to strike a difficult balance. Cut too early, and the farmer misses out on the chance to grow more of the best-quality crop of the season. 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–biochemically similar to wood. Ruminants can, amazingly, digest and metabolize plant fiber into the energy they need to live, make milk, and reproduce, but they cannot do anything with wood. Farmers who miss the forage quality peak (breakdowns, weather, etc)  are forced to feed additional purchased grain or accept lower levels of milk production, both consequences that negatively impact the farm’s bottom line in an already economically tight enterprise.

Dairy farmers in Vermont employ a variety of strategies to feed their cattle. Some also raise corn or other annual crops to store and feed 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. In all of these systems, minimizing the expense of purchased feedstuffs is critical to farm viability. First cut hay is foundational to this objective.

A close up photo of alfalfa, a leafy green grass.

This spring, late frosts and a dry May resulted in poor yields of first cutting hay on most farms in our region. Farmers may have to buy forages from outside the area, feed additional grain, cut back on cattle numbers, and/or feed forages to milking cows that would be better suited to dry stock or beef cattle. Dairy farmers remain resilient, resourceful, and hopeful that the rest of the season will bring more favorable conditions, and in an industry so deeply tied to the whims of mother nature, this positive yet humble outlook is just another part of the job. 

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

a close up photo of Smooth Brome Grass

This growing season in particular has added a spring drought, late frost, and catastrophic midsummer flooding to the usual challenges of harvesting a hay crop in this landscape and climate. We hope that this missive can help provide a glimpse into the business and tradition of growing and harvesting grass. As August rolls in, so does third cut, or maybe the tail end of second or even first. So keep your eyes peeled for fields of grass and clover growing leafy and lush to be cut when the sun shines and stored for those long winter months to feed happy cows.