From the mid 19th century haymaking started to move away from sickles and scythes towards the mechanized process that it is today. Haymaking equipment has developed towards taking most of the labor out of haymaking. However, the basic process of cutting, turning, drying, baling, collecting, and storing remains. There is also that optimum time of two weeks or so when your hay will be at its most nutritious to cut and therefore the best for your livestock to consume during the winter months.
As a rule of thumb, the more mature your hay grass or legumes are the less protein they will contain for your livestock. You will most likely get more tonnage per acre but they will be of lower quality, "more is actually less," and this will mean that nutritional supplements may be required to adequately feed your livestock through the winter. Furthermore, quality is especially important if you are selling your hay crop, "less quality, lower price." Look for when the first seed head can be seen emerging from the sheath to the time when the plant has grown approximately another foot as your prime first cut window. You will need two to three days of dry weather to cut, dry and bale your crop. Watch the forecasts and be ready, however, because of the sometimes troublesome spring weather, luck may not always smile upon your plans. After the first cut, subsequent hay cuts can usually made every four to six weeks thereafter.
Before you even think about cutting your hay it is a good idea to check out your cutting equipment. Having a preventable machinery failure in the fields with rain clouds looming will cost you time and money. To cut your hay you will need a mower and, of course a tractor or access to one to pull the machinery unless you have a self-propelled mower, which may also employ a conditioner too to speed the drying process. Larger operations will have state-of-the-art equipment, smaller ones much less so. The machinery employed on your crop will depend upon the size of crop that you are getting in and how deep your pockets are to buy machinery. There are two types of mowers, rotary and sickle. Rotary mowers are faster and more productive than sickle. However, if you must employ pre-owned equipment you may have to go for a sickle mower as a cheaper option. Used machinery is widely available at dealerships and farm sales.
Take advice from your dealer as to what equipment you need for your farm and plan ahead, with the help from your dealer if necessary, as to the most efficient way to cut your fields with turns, etc. This should save you time, allow you to harvest more of your crop, and also save you money on fuel; also ensure that your tractor has sufficient weight and power for the job that you are expecting it to do.
Once your hay has been cut, you will need to rake it to create windrows, gather the windrows together, and to turn or flip the hay over for it to dry. Raking is best done when the moisture in the hay is at 40 percent. Old hands at haymaking can usually tell by touch when the time is right. However, moisture is also crucial when it comes to baling so an investment in a moisture tester could save you a lot of money in the long run, especially when the hay has been subjected to rain. The equipment you employ is a choice between optimum efficiency and affordability. The most efficient rakes are rotary rakes that treat the crop gently, wheel rakes, which can be problematic on wetter crops, and parallel bar rakes. In adverse weather conditions you may consider using a tedder, which spreads the hay to enhance the drying process.
Your first tool to employ before baling is your moisture tester. Wet hay will rot, and rotten hay produces toxins leading to livestock sickness and sometimes fatalities, particularly in horses. Test the windrows with your moisture tester. You should be looking for moisture readings of between 15 - 20 percent. The type of baling equipment that you use will depend on your personal preference as to the type of bale and its suitability for your use, or your end user. Round bales, for instance, are more suited for larger livestock that are kept outside, while square bales are better for smaller livestock and for feeding in stables. Traditional square baling machines will produce easy to handle rectangular bales of hay weighing between 40 - 60 pounds; large square balers are also available that can produce an 1800 pound bale. Round balers can produce round bales up to 6 feet in diameter and weigh up to 2,000 pounds; specialist small round balers are also available. You will need a suitably powered tractor to pull the balers. To run a traditional square baler a 36 horsepower (hp) tractor should be adequate. For larger round bales a 70 - 100 hp tractor will be required. If you are in doubt, consult your machinery dealer. Ensure that your balers are correctly adjusted and serviced as per your service manuals before you begin baling. And, once your hay is baled, keep the bales outside without touching each other for two days or so and test that the moisture levels fall within acceptable parameters before storing them inside.
Finally, safety accidents with hay machinery are common. Follow safe work practices, have dust masks available, and remember that children are especially at risk in the fields.