Saturday, September 3, 2011


            One of the “joys” of ranching is putting up hay.  There are three reasons for this:  1) the grass grows too fast in the summer for the cows to utilize effectively, 2) the grass doesn’t grow at all in the winter, and 3) what grass there is left in the winter can be buried under the snow.
            As I said in my previous post, alfalfa is a wonderful crop for hay.  (Cattle can’t graze it fresh, however, as it will bloat and kill them quickly.)  A fresh seeding of alfalfa might yield 5 tons to the acre while native grass does well to produce more than a ton.  But production begins to decline after a few years, and it pays to plow each field and reseed it every 7-10 years.
            I had plowed up a small field this spring, and had worked it a few times over the summer.  We pulled the leveler over it a couple of times last week and had it ready to seed.  My neighbor Stuart is a far better farmer than I, and he had recommended seeding it yet this fall.  If the plants get enough of a start before winter, they are up and growing already at a time in the spring when the fields are often too wet to farm, and when we have more other work than we can get done.
            The newest thing is a winter wheat that has been bred to produce leaves rather than heads.  I planted it yesterday together with alfalfa and brome grass.  The wheat is an annual that will shelter the hay plants from cold and wind, and will yield a nice hay crop next summer.  Then the alfalfa and brome will take over to provide hay for the next ten years.

            Tearing up an old hayfield can be a challenge.  One method is the tried and true moldboard plow, which cuts off ribbons of sod and rolls them over on their sides.  But that is slow, hard to accommodate to irregularly-shaped fields, and still requires numerous trips to incorporate the residue and smooth it enough for replanting.  All of that costs money for fuel, wear on expensive equipment, as well as time.
            Another technique is to spray out the old hay, so that the plants and roots can break down over the winter.  By spring a guy can pull through the field with spikes, at a much faster pace, and leaving a much smoother surface.  But of course the spray is expensive too.  As I don’t have a big enough tractor to pull a moldboard plow well, I opted to spray.

            This is not without its frustrations, but it is quicker.  As with calculating the capacity of culverts, figuring the mixture of spray utilizes elementary school math.  Charts provide the gallons per minute delivered by the spray jets at a given pressure, and one must figure the width of the spray and the speed of the tractor to get gallons per acre.  Then he decides on the rate at which the chemical should be applied, and figures out how many gallons in the tank, and how many ounces, pints, quarts, and gallons of the various components to add.
I put it all into several spreadsheets to know my ground speed in each range of each gear of each tractor.  I can bring the spreadsheet up on my Palm to know the proper proportions for the tractor sprayer, the ATV sprayer, and the backpack.  My spreadsheets even convert ounces to cups to pints to quarts to gallons. 
All of my calculations were wrong.  I had measured the output of the backpack and the ATV sprayer, and was quite confident of their calibration.  But I had accepted the charts provided by the manufacturer for the tractor sprayer, and I am now convinced that – for whatever reason – it is putting out twice as much as the charts say it should.  And since I had added chemical based on the stated rate of 10 gallons of spray per acre, and since it seems to be putting out close to 20 gallons per acre, I was applying my herbicide at a gallon per acre rather than 2 quarts.  So it was costing me $20/acre for spray rather than $10!
Of course I don’t know precisely the size of the piece I was spraying.  My estimate was based on an old conservation map from the USDA Natural Resources and Conservation Service, which was based on aerial photos from years past.  But now I have taken a measurement in Google Earth, which yields about the same acreage.
The best measure comes from the counter on the grain drill.  But I won’t be drilling it for another year, and even that measure is exaggerated by overlaps on each pass - and especially on the corners.
But I am excited to get this (approximately) 20 acres producing up to capacity, and excited that next year I will again be irrigating some of the best hayfields on the ranch with my newly-acquired sprinkler set-up – even if it does mean farming.

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