It must be time for a roll in the hay!

The field across from Polly Hill Arboretum was recently hayed. It was fascinating to watch the bales appear, and I expect that other fields will soon be following suit.

Hay is for horses . . . and sheep, goats and cattle, too!  Fields are hayed to provide food for livestock in dark and cold seasons when plants are dormant.  Grasses, legumes, herbaceous plants or a mix of those are the building blocks of a decent hay bale.

Good quality hay should be green and include plant heads, leaves and stems. However, it shouldn’t be too coarse or woody. 

Different plants provide different benefits, and each have their own values in a hay bale. In the legume category, find alfalfa, clover, soybeans, vetch, birdsfoot trefoil, lespedeza and cow peas. Grasses that make good hay include timothy, brome, bluegrass, fescue, rye grass, Bermuda grass and orchard grass. 

Alfalfa is regarded for its digestibility and as a good source of protein, energy, vitamins and minerals. Other plants can cause harm as hay. An example would be tall fescue, which can do damage to pregnant mares when it contains a certain toxic fungus.

The business of haying seems to be both a science and an art. Plants are best harvested for hay when the plant’s seed heads are not quite ripe. Also desirable are the leaves of the plant, which contain much of the energy, protein and other nutrients. Stems are less regarded, since they generally have more fiber and fewer nutrients. 

The time to hay is very dependent on weather conditions. Drought can cause seeds and leaf growth to be stunted, while too much rain can spoil hay in the field before it can be baled or lead to rot and mold problems after it is baled.

Maybe now is the time to make hay in the sunshine. The process: cut it, then dry or cure it, then process and store it. Storage is really key. Hay must be fully dry to prevent spoilage and protected from the elements, and, of course, from varmints. Animals such as mice or rabbits that get caught up within a hay bale are not only not long for this world, but once they pass unto the next, their earthly form rots and can produce the toxin that causes botulism.

Haying is clearly more dangerous than one might have thought. In the period between 1992 and 1998, 74 farm workers in the U.S. were killed in round hay bale accidents. Round bales are considered much more dangerous than square due to both their size and propensity to roll. Another hazard is the inhalation of dust or mold spores from hay, which causes a condition called farmer’s lung. While not deadly, it can cause allergic reactions and irritation that if untreated can lead to permanent lung damage. Spontaneous combustion and hay fires are also a fear for farmers.

Clearly, working in the fields is both dangerous and exhausting. Perhaps it is time to just hit the hay — a sentiment surely shared by Shrewsbury, Mass., farmer Joseph Ward, who lamented at the end of one season: “so finished haying, after many a hard rub and weary nights.” 

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.