Friday, August 31, 2012

Stacking Hay

 My childhood recollections of stacking hay involve the ’48 Dodge 2-ton flatbed and a lot of sweat.

My brother was about 10 years old at the time, and he was drafted to drive the truck through the field.  My dad and several uncles spread out around the truck setting the bales up onto the bed where my grandfather stacked them.  When the truck was full, Dad would drive it over to the haystack for unloading.

Each bale was carried to the truck and lifted several times: once to the truck bed, once up onto the load on the truck, then off the truck and into the stack.

As a teenager I helped stack hay from the same field, but this time with an elevator that lifted the bales up onto the truck – eliminating the three uncles.  We still had to transfer the load of hay to the stack, but we had saved a lot of manpower with the use of that elevator

Then I was introduced to buck-rakes and a loader tractor with a grapple head.  A couple of us budding racecar drivers were given contraptions built on old pickup frames that had “sweeps” affixed to the front.  We drove through the field scooping up bales, and hauled them in loads of ten to the vicinity of the stack where we deposited the bales in rows.  A tractor then packed our bales together, and hydraullicly-operated tines gripped 8 bales at a time to set them up and make a perfect stack.  The bales were seldom touched by human hands until it was time to feed them out next winter.

That system had sped up the hay-stacking process considerably, but still required 3 men to accomplish.  In the early 1970s, however, a new machine was introduced:  the New Holland Balewagon  could gather an entire field of bales and put them in the stack with only one operator.  The machine was expensive - but good help is not cheap, and is getting ever harder to find.

Of course most ranches have long since gone to big round bales that are handled exclusively by hydrauliclly-equipped tractors and pickups.  But for the last forty years the stackwagon has been the standard for any of us still feeding small square bales.  ( For my opinion of big round bales, see my blog post )

The balewagon is a big beast, but in good bales on flat ground it can be fun to operate.  The first step is line up the chute with a bale and scoop it up onto the first table.   

When three bales have accumulated, the table trips and sets them up onto the second table.

When five tables of three have been tipped up, the second table trips and swings up to set those 15 bales onto the load rack.

When the load rack is full the rig is driven to the stackyard where the load is tipped up into the stack.

In theory, 5-ton loads of hay are now untouched by human hands as they are picked from the fields by one man and put up into a stack – but that’s another story.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Alfalfa is a wonderful plant – delicious, nutritious, and productive.  It is a perennial plant that thrives on heat and regenerates very quickly after being cut, making it the main hay producer in the West.

We cut it the end of June for the first time this year, and are in the middle of the second cutting now.  We got about 3 tons per acre on the first cutting, and a little more than one ton on the 2nd.

This shows the regrowth after about six weeks:

The hay is cut with a “Swather”, which lays the hay in “Windrows”.  Depending on the weather it may require only one day, or more than a week, to dry down sufficiently to bale. 

  While most ranches have gone to the big round bales, I still make small square bales.

The moisture content of hay is crucial.  It must be less than 25% when it is baled or the hay will heat and mold.  But when it gets too dry, the leaves – where the feed value resides – will fall off.  I try to do my baling at night or in the early morning when the humidity is up to 50% and the hay moisture may be above 20%

At our altitude we get only two cuttings per summer.  In Billings and Bozeman they get three cuttings.  In Arizona, I am told, they can get up to six cuttings if they have sufficient moisture.

It takes a full four inches of water, however, to make a cutting of hay.  And when you figure in evaporation, it takes 6”.  It has been so dry this summer that we have irrigated three times already.  Each of these irrigations adds about 4” to the soil profile, so we have given the alfalfa every bit of the water it needed to thrive.

Montana may be perceived as a cowboy state, but a northern rancher spends all summer putting up hay, and all winter putting it out again.  That isn’t necessary in the SouthWest, so those cowboys actually spend a lot more time in the saddle.

But I hate the heat, and actually enjoy those 20 below mornings.  So I’ll stay put in Montana for at least a few more years.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Chasing Water

We’ve been "chasing water" all summer.  It began late in May when we first started irrigation water on our hayfields – as described in my post

It continued so dry that we no sooner finished getting from one end to the other across our hayfields then we started again.  Then it was time to cut the hay – and quickly throw the water back on them for the third time of the summer.

We also had to chase water in another venue: the house water first got murky, then diminished to a trickle.

The water for the house is the best in the world.  It is gravity flow from a spring some 1000 yards up the coulee.  There has always been enough clear, cool, free water to take care of all the household needs, and to irrigate the lawn to boot.  But we began to have trouble this summer.

With the first cutting of hay in the stack, the time came to address the house water situation.  First stop was the spring box – a concrete vault built into the hillside, with perforated pipe laid back into the spring behind it.  Years of use had left a build-up of silt in the bottom of the tank, which was now spilling over into the outlet.

We first stirred the silt into a slurry, then pumped it out of the tank.

Then we began draining the line down to the house.

But we still had no pressure.  In fact, after 2 days of steady work we had just a trickle of water at the house – only one toilet was working and there was no water for a shower.

On the third day we plumbed a fitting in the basement so that we could apply a blast of air back up the water line.  We opened the yard hydrant and emptied the compressor tank to blow silt back up the line.  We next moved the compressor to that yard hydrant and blew air back up and out the next hydrant up the line, and on up to the hydrant at the horsebarn – blowing air clear back up through the inlet at the spring box.  Then we worked our way back down the line to the house.

Some of the faucets at the house emptied brown water, but with good pressure.  Others were plugged tight.  We took apart each of the faucets and each of the toilet floats to clean plugs of debris, and got some feeble water.  After four days of work and several more blasts of air back up the line we finally got clean water at good pressure!

Only a person who has been without can fully appreciate the pleasure of having adequate flows of good water at the tap.  And now we can again brag that we have the world’s best water – with no chlorine, no interruptions, and no monthly water bill.

But we’re still chasing water in the hayfields.  We’ve been across each of them three times over the summer, and now we’re irrigating some grazing land.  In this field we use plastic dams to tip the water out of the ditch, moving the dams some 30 feet twice a day.  Last year we only irrigated once!

Next up is to cut hay for a second time on the irrigated fields.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The End is Near

Not long ago I spoke with a rancher friend up in the Bear Paw Mountains.  He admitted that he hadn’t been ahorseback in over two years.

“First you buy a four-wheeler to do the irrigating”, he said, “Then you figure out how well it works to get in the horses.”  "One day you realize that you could be there and back on the ATV in less time than it would take you to saddle your horse – and that’s the beginning of the end.”
“When you finally really need a horse, he’s so out of shape and out of tune that you can’t get the job done – and it’s all over.”

This morning I went out to irrigate, and threw some salt and mineral in the side-by-side ATV so I could combine tasks and save some time.  After setting some dams, I drove on up the far end of the hayfield and out into the pasture beyond.  My plan was to cross that field and fill a salt tub just through the gate and into the next field - where I intended to move the cattle in the next few days.  I was surprised to find about 25 pairs that must have broken through the fence at the top of the mountain.

After filling the tub I drove back through the cows, which were already bunched near the gate.  This was the only part of the field that is flat, my dog was with me, there were no bulls or yearlings to be cut out, and the task seemed simple.  So we drove out around them and Max jumped out – eager to go to work.

The cows headed straight for the gate!  It took far less time than going back for a horse!  Was this the beginning of the end for me, too?

It was only a few hours later that I redeemed myself, however.  Ted had run the horses down from the pasture – with the four-wheeler – to give a ride to some visiting children.  He noticed some escaped heifers that were lying on the ridge above the horsebarn.

This heifers had blundered up through the reef that bounded their pasture and couldn’t find their way home.  They were close, we knew where they were, and the horses were in the corral.  I had planned to finish some maintenance on the baler, but this opportunity trumped that plan – the baler could wait.

Saddling my “Kentucky Colt”, I headed up the ridge after them.  The black line shows my initial assent.

But the ridge was too narrow to circle around the heifers – they arose and started up the ridge away from me.  So I turned back – following the blue line – and tried to cut through the quaking aspens.  But the trees were too dense and I had to follow the blue line back down and circle through the bottom of the trees and then ride clear around the trees to get above the heifers.

Once I got above them, the heifers moved off nicely down the ridge - the yellow line shows their path down off the sidehill on the first lap.  They made a foray up into the brush near the fence, and I turned them back.  Then they cut back across the creek and into the trees.  Max, The Colt, and I circled wide to the left, and I sent Max into the trees to push the heifers out the other side.  We had to make a second lap on the blue line around the quakers to cut them off again!

The orange line shows the path of those heifers on the second lap.  This time I was able to cut them off quicker, and held them up next to the open gate.

It was some ten minutes more before they finally found the hole – but the rest was easy.

Maybe it isn’t over for my horses yet.  The ground was rocky, brushy, and steep – and I was grateful that my horse is shod with hard-surfaced steel shoes.  There is no way that any kind of wheeled vehicle could have followed us.

The “Colt” – who is now some ten years old – handled all that up-and-down and back-and-forth without slowing his pace.  He still has that feather-light rein – although he reads cows so well that he seldom needs any direction.

No, my horses are safe for a few more years.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Price of Calves

Most Montana ranchers have cow/calf operations:  they maintain a herd of cows that have calves every year, which are usually shipped in the fall at 6 months of age.  These calves generally go to feedlots in the Midwest where they are finished for slaughter to make high-quality beef.
The majority of these calves are ”contracted” to a specific buyer early in the summer: the rancher agrees on a price, a delivery date, and a weighing facility.  The price is per pound, and steers are worth about 6% higher than heifers, as they gain weight faster and yield more meat. 

Arriving at an acceptable price is always a conundrum. The rancher, of course, wants the highest price possible.  He knows what calves are selling for at the local auction yard in the weight range that he expects his calves to be in the fall; but will the price move up or down over the summer? 

The buyer must purchase the calves cheap enough that he can buy all the necessary feed for them and still make a profit.  But what will the feed cost, and what will the price be when those calves are ready for market?

Another option is to wait until fall and send the calves to the auction yard – taking the price of the day. 

I have sold calves both ways.  But since you never know what you would have gotten had you marketed them another way, you never really know which would have been the better option.

The major factor driving the price over the long run is the total number of calves being sold over the year.  We are currently in a cycle of low cattle numbers – and the base price of calves is the highest it’s ever been.

Feed costs are what drive prices in the short term.  Feeders have carefully calculated their expected cost of gain, and make their offer according to what they can pay for the calf and still make a profit when selling the fat cattle to the packer.

As the rancher doesn’t know what the calf market will be in the fall when he ships, neither does feeder know what the market will be when he sends the fat cattle to slaughter.  He can of course look at what the Futures market is doing for the month that he expects to ship his fats, but that is subject to change according to weather, crop harvests, and the economy.

The ultimate factor in the price of cattle all the way up the line is the price of beef in the supermarket.  If the price to the consumer is too high, he will buy less beef and more chicken, pork – and even tofu.

For the calf crop of 2012, beef demand remains strong and supply remains short.  Some calves were contracted early in the summer for as high as $1.75 per pound – the highest price ranchers have ever seen. 

But as areas of drought expand, crops shrivel and the price of feed climbs steadily.  Hay that cost less than $100/ton last year will likely be over $150 this year; corn that cost $5.00/bushel last year may cost $8.50 this year.  High costs for feed to grow those calves out will drive up the cost of gain, and feeders will need to buy those calves cheaper in order to compensate.  And thus the price of calves has fallen quickly - to less than $1.50/pound now. 

Will crop yields be better than currently projected – lowering the cost of gain and improving the feeders’ capacity to pay more for calves?  Or will crop yields be worse – raising feed costs even more, and causing calf prices to continue their fall.

Will the feeders that bought calves early at higher prices be driven out of business by high-priced feed?  Will ranchers that bought new equipment on the expectation of higher-priced calves be able to make their payments?

Should I contract the calves now before the price goes down further, or wait until fall in the hope that the price will rebound?

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion!


It will be months before we know what the exciting conclusion will be.