I stared at the hay in dismay. It looked bad--stemmy and brown, so it was sure to contain a lot of undigestible and therefore useless fiber. It smelled bad--moldy, so the animals were likely to not only dislike eating it but could even get sick from eating it. It felt bad--scratchy and unappetizing even to a cow or sheep. The critters had been feasting on premium alfalfa hay all winter and scarfed down all 5 tons (that's 10,000 pounds) of it. All I had left was 2 tons of this junky hay. If the hay sitting in front of me had been the premium hay it would have been just what we needed to get us through the end of the winter and back onto lucious, wonderful grass. But in a moment of penny pinching last fall, I opted to save $40 and buy this cheaper hay instead of the quality alfalfa. If only I could pay that $40 now, wave a magic wand, and turn it into the good hay. Reluctantly, I put some of the hay into the feeders for the sheep and cows, figuring it was better than giving them nothing. They looked at me like I was nuts and asked for the alfalfa please, baa-ing and moo-ing in their saddest, hungriest voices.
I checked craigslist for hay and found that the available hay was even worse quality and more expensive than it had been last fall. We had an extreme drought last summer and good hay was scarce. On a tip from my good friend Leah who has been homesteading for several years and has a wealth of knowledge about who to call for anything a farmer might need to buy or contract for, I called up Nick's Organic Farm in Maryland. Nick himself cheerfully answered the phone and kindly explained that, no, he did not have any hay at all available. He did, however, offer to sell me some haylage.
Haylage!!! I was thrilled. Haylage was exactly what I had really wanted all along, but I didn't know where to buy it in Loudoun County in the middle of horse--not dairy--farmland. Haylage is fermented grass and alfalfa. Unlike hay, it is baled before it is dry. The still-wet hay is baled into big 1000 pound round bales of hay and then wrapped tightly in plastic, creating an anaerobic environment. The naturally occurring lactabacillus grow and ferment the hay. It's just like making pickles! Compared to traditional dry-curing of hay, this fermentation curing process preserves more of the omega-3 fats, CLA, and other healthy things in the haylage. The higher quality feed means that the animals produce higher quality and healthier meat and milk. There are other benefits to haylage too. The haylage provides better nutrition for cows than dry hay, making it more likely that I would be able to ditch the grain and switch our cow over to 100% grass. The bales are individually wrapped, so they can be stored outside, keeping the haylage in perfect condition all through the winter without a barn or the tarp that we used this past winter.
As if all that wasn't good enough, this particular haylage is certified organic. It's very difficult to find certified organic hay or haylage in Loudoun County. According to popular perception, hay and pasture seem wholesome and like they would not have a high synthetic fertilizer, pesticide, or herbicide load. However, conventional hay and pasture does often get sprayed quite a lot and so one of my priorities is to source certified organic hay or haylage.
I was convinced that the haylage was wonderful, but the problem was getting it here. As I mentioned, it comes in giant 1000 pound wrapped packages. After much debate over whether it would be a good idea to put one into our little trailer towed by our trusty Subaru, we opted for our neighbor's 3/4 ton pickup truck. Being the kind and generous people that they are, Bruce and Kathy were amenable to us using their truck on short notice. I'm a very lucky farmer, for I have not only wonderful neighbors but also a helpful husband who is remarkably patient with his wife's farming misadventures. After I unconvincingly explained that the expedtition would take just a few minutes and enhance his day by providing a primal connection to our food, our animals, our land, and our planet, he nevertheless cheerfully set off for Nick's Organic Farm.
Thanks to our kind neighbors and their truck, for once we looked like genuine farmers, as the big white truck pulled into the driveway with two giant bales of haylage in the back.
The animals hurried over to investigate and we wondered how we were going to get the bales out of the truck. Once again, a strong husband was the answer, and he rolled the first one right out.
The second bale was a bit more trouble, requiring both engineering and muscles to get it out of the truck, but soon it was out too. As soon as we had the plastic off the first bale and the round bale feeder around it, the animals hurried over to check it out. They approved! What a feast! The haylage smells wonderfully sweet and delicious, even to a person. It is soft and palatable. The mixture of alfalfa and orchard grass will provide excellent nutrition. Thank you Nick's Organic Farm! I'll be placing a pre-order soon so that we can be sure to have enough of this excellent quality certified organic feed for the entire winter next year.