Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Sarah Loten takes us through the seasons of growing food at Drover’s Way Farm.

When the wind is in the East, it is good for neither man nor beast;
When the wind is in the North, the old beasts should not venture forth;
When the wind is in the South, it blows hay into the horse’s mouth;
When the wind is in the West, it is of all the winds, the best.
– Folklore

As farmers, farming this patch of earth at Drover’s Way Farm, our senses are ever attuned to the weather and the seasons, taking note of nature’s absolute deadlines as we strive to produce food for man and beast. As I step out of my farmhouse door every morning, I inevitably pause on the stone step. I take note of the conditions, the wind, the scent in the air. I feel the temperature on my skin, the sense of movement in the trees, the moisture level underfoot, and listen for cues from the sounds of the animals, both wild and domestic. Yes, as a modern farmer, I have checked Environment Canada’s weather website for a more scientific model and the latest radar imaging to understand the conditions of the day. I factor those details into my plans. Yet, really, like generations before me, I seem only to trust the computer-generated data after I have felt it, in my own boots, on my own skin, with my own eyes and ears. Nothing ever replaces the data input of the human senses.

Seasonality on the farm, for producing food for both people and animals, really is the name of the game at Drover’s Way Farm. We are absolutely tied to the seasons. The seasons dictate what we do with our activities and lives every year, with an insistent, consistent rhythm. We produce food on the farm for our own family, for our animals and for many people beyond the farm gate. Mother Nature nurtures, but she also demands. And, some days, as I quibble with Mother Nature, I feel like she needs a lot of assistance for someone who is supposed to be in charge.

We know, yearly, what we have to do as the seasons unfold. After years of doing this farming gig, I am struck by the consistent rhythm of the seasons. Yes, there are yearly variations, which keep us dancing on our toes, but, truly, the seasons consistently tell us when we have to plant, when we have to move sheep out to pasture, and when it is time to harvest crops. We do our best to dance to the rhythms of the seasons, the demands of the day. We have to listen and watch, carefully, for the cues of the weather and seasons to plant, to adjust growing conditions and then to harvest, all within the absolute deadlines that nature dictates.

Sometimes, nature is generous with its offerings and there is flexibility in our approach. Sometimes, we literally have a 6-hour window of time when we can get seed into the ground. If we miss that opportunity, we may miss planting a certain crop for that year. Last spring, many farmers were seen desperately scanning the skies, standing under barn shelters, shed awnings, tractor roofs, as we waited for the rain to stop, the skies to clear. We prayed for just a few hours of sun to dry out the soil so that we could dare to venture forth with tractor and planter that had been sitting on standby, waiting for its farmer to start the engine and plant the crop. We waited days, weeks, changed seed variety to a shorter-season plant and then waited some more. Finally, the stars aligned, the ducks stood in a row…it was rush hour in the country! Everywhere you looked, farmers were planting for hours, late in the day and into the night, until that window of a few hours closed and the rain came again.

“Make hay while the sun shines” is another piece of weather folklore. It is as true today as it was hundreds of years ago. The art and science of making a quantity of good-quality hay is absolutely essential for a livestock farmer, for winter fodder (animal feed). Cooperation from Mother Nature is essential during hay-making periods. We need good, soaking rains to create a sufficient volume of hay, and cooler weather with long days to make a good-quality hay. Then, we need dry, sunny days to cure (dry) the hay before it can be gathered and baled. If that sounds like a complicated set of demands to be asking of the fickle weather of eastern Ontario in late spring, you are right. Much strategy and hard work against tight deadlines is imperative for livestock farmers during this time period, every spring and summer.

A few years back, I was standing beside another farmer, watching our children play a league soccer game. He laughed, after looking around at the gathered parents. I looked in surprise and asked, “Why?” He said, “You can tell which parents in this group are farmers, because they keep looking up at the sky!” I laughed, too, because I knew exactly what he meant. We all wanted to watch our kids play soccer on this beautiful late-summer afternoon, but the farmers in the group all had hay cut and drying on the ground. Despite the lovely day, clouds were rolling in, air pressure and wind were shifting and there was a sense of possible storm. The farmers were getting very restless. As much as we loved our kids and watching soccer, we were being pulled back to our fields, in our minds. The seasons and nature’s deadlines have no respect for organized soccer league schedules!

Daily farm schedules are even less respectful of normal working family life. Mother Nature can be very playful, giving us lots of time on a rainy day when no human wants to be outside playing, really. She makes us feel guilty when we would love to go to a beach or a park with our family but must spend hours in a tractor, working land, because the weather is so very perfect and sunny. She teases us when we try to make schedules for family events, reunions, months in advance, telling us the work should be done by that day, time. Then, suddenly throwing a little rain shower into the day to make us late, or a perfect window of opportunity to finish a few more rows or perhaps harvest a little more hay. Mother Nature has a good sense of humour, and all we can do is laugh (or cry) and do as she dictates.

Daylight hours are a relentless reality of daily life on a farm. We are keenly aware of every 5 minutes that is gained or lost in a day. And, daylight time…please don’t ever think farmers are behind that biannual hurdle. Try telling a cow that she has to wait an extra hour to be milked because the “laws of the land” and the “powers that be” told us so. She clearly doesn’t understand! The shortening fall hours create another type of rush hour on our farm. Some of our chores can be done inside, in barns. But many of our sheep are kept outside year-round. Coyotes are a significant threat to our flock, so it is imperative that I am home before dusk to round up the sheep with the herding dog, bringing them into safe yards and fields overnight. I become very aware of fall’s fading light when over several weeks that rush-hour deadline gets earlier and earlier. By December, the day draws in by 4:30 p.m. in this part of the world, and that deadline is 5 hours earlier than it was only a few months ago.

The final big seasonal deadline of the farming year occurs during harvest in mid- to late fall. The financial, work, time and emotional investment in food crops on our farm all come down to a timely harvest. All human efforts, all discussions with Mother Nature, the tilling, the seeding, the births of animals, the growing, the nurturing—all of that culminates in harvest. This is crunch time for farmers, the culmination and remuneration for work done all year. However, the crops have to come off the fields first.

In our part of the world, early frost and snow are a constant threat. Frost is more significant than snow because a hard frost shuts down the growth of all plants, some plants being more sensitive than others. Grass is incredibly resilient for growing the lambs further (especially if snow protects it temporarily), but our field crops are usually finished with a hard frost. Last fall, we had soybeans that were snowed on in October. We held our breath and didn’t get too worried. Then it snowed again. The collective farmer blood pressure went up. Then the snow melted. Some farmers were able to get their beans off, some not. We did. It snowed again! Now farmers were getting very stressed. There can be a lot of breath holding during harvest season. In Ontario, harvest was completed with a lot of dancing involved. Out west, farmers did not even get out onto the dance floor in many areas, and many crops were ruined.

As growers of food, our senses guide us expertly through the days and seasons. Humans have been gathering, tilling and tending to acquire food for generations. Farmers are simply tuning into and using the tools that are inherent in all of us. As we come into spring, we notice the “sugar snow” that dictates the perfect conditions for maple syrup production. In later spring, the crumble of the soil in our hands tells us that the land is ready to bed the tiny alfalfa seeds at planting. In summer, the feel and scent of forage grasses, the sight of the barely emerging seed heads, tells us that it is time to cut the hay crop. In the fall, the angle of the sun, the crispness of the air, the hint of early frost and the disappearing songbirds tell us that the soybeans, apples and corn are reaching just the right level of ripeness for harvesting.

Growing food is a dance with nature, with deadlines, expectations, needs and a willingness to move with the rhythm of time. Farming is the art of quilting the fields, tending the animals, harvesting and gathering from the land while working in coordination with the seasonal patterns of nature. It is always a journey.

*

Hay cut with a DiscbineTK (mower) and flipped into windrows (rows) that will be picked up later by a baler. It takes between 3 to 5 days, weather dependent, for the rows to dry. There are three types of balers: round, small square and large square.

Baling hay by the light of the moon. As Sarah Loten explains, there was an impending storm (pictured in this photo) coming from the west, so her son was round-baling as fast as possible to get the dry hay baled before the storm. At Drover’s Way Farm, the whole family gets involved in the process of storing small square bales in the loft of the barn, including Sarah’s husband, Oliver, and daughter, Grace, pictured a few years back. Corn growing in one of the Drover’s Way Farm fields. “Another folklore saying is ‘Corn must be knee high by the first of July,’” says Sarah. In this picture, from last year, the family barely managed to achieve that. “We were luckier than some, due to the late planting season because of rain and flooding,” Sarah recalls. “Many farmers posted pictures of themselves crouching in their fields to be knee high…as a joke. It’s important to keep laughing when Mother Nature throws her curve balls!” Feeding sheep grain outside with a little delivery wagon that is pulled behind an ATV. “We feed them corn and soybeans to supplement their main diet of hay,” says Sarah. “Sometimes it is fun to make decorations around the field with the grain. We can make all sorts on interesting shapes, and the sheep happily line up for the offering!” “This is a picture of a heart made by feeding grain to sheep who will happily cooperate to eat their favourite food,” says Sarah. “They don’t care what pattern they make—it’s all tasty!” A rainbow in full view, over hay barns and grain storage. “Despite the weather challenges, another harvest season is stored away for winter,” says Sarah. “Making small square bales of hay is very labour intensive because each bale has to be handled individually, by hand, unlike the big round bales that can be moved, stored and fed out by tractor,” says Sarah. “That said, square bales are a necessity if an animal has to be penned temporarily and fed in a smaller area indoors.”  Loading hay bales into the loft. “Every year, in a tradition started by my father, we grow a large organic vegetable garden,” says Sarah. “We use piglets to rototill the garden in the spring. They do a remarkable job of killing weeds and rooting up the soil while having a grand time making mud wallows and searching for tasty tidbits. When we plant the garden, we move them into our poly-tunnels that have housed young sheep all winter. The pigs continue to grow as they root up tasty bits left behind by the sheep. This breaks up the manure pack in the tunnels, making them easier to clean out, creating composted manure. We also feed the pigs corn, grain and compost from our garden, household and yard. At the end of the fall, they are slaughtered and turned into meat that feeds our family and a number of people. It’s a symbiotic relationship.”

Sarah Loten
Sarah Loten

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Posted on Tuesday, July 6th, 2021


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