Small Plots: Making Hay, Part 1
One does not need vast holdings to feed a few goats, rabbits, chickens and such small animals to live on. In fact one person can do a great deal with basic hand tools, and although a tractor may be a dream of labor savings the expense is not always justified.
My 5-acre hay field that has been in production for over a couple hundred hears is exhausted by repeated cuttings. Five acres will barely make for a one horse grazing, much less hay for winter needs. Therefore I have studied on these 5 acres for the past thirty years and see clearly the need for quartering the land into sub plots for regrowth and health to maintain some sort of stability. This was a concept in the 13th century that took hold following the introduction of the Roman Plow.
A plow, pulled by a dozen Serfs, maybe an ox or two, (but not a horse in those days as horses were for the very rich war lords) could plow up an acre in a day. The soil being turned over pushed the vegetation under for quicker rot and hence new vitality. Of course wind, water and the Lord’s horses chasing the fox across the land led to erosion so the concept of plowing, dragging a clod buster log, and sowing with seeds became known.
Historical anthropologists have concluded that the average time spent in medieval labor was less than what we spend today in modern times-yet in those days most of one’s time was spent in prayer. It was still not a good life.
Today to take the “5 acres and Independence” concept and break it down into a productive homestead still requires you to keep that day job. Since there are no neighborhood Serfs the new age landowner works harder, goes in debt, and buys a tractor with accessories, builds a barn, tool shed and garage. This requires more money. More labor. Grumbles, not prayers.
My observation is nature’s way- just share part of that land, replant with nature’s way and learn to not become part of the mainstream non-thinkers of commercial major farm management costs.
I have fenced about an acre adjacent to the hayfield and let in remain “fallow”-that is I left it alone. In the course of a few short years it was growing native grasses and herbs naturally sown that were three times higher than the hay field and a lush dark green while the hayfield remained a weak lime green. The conclusion is that nature will heal itself if left alone-but the time involved is nature’s time and may not be compatible with the human visitors needs.
Using the 13th century learning of dividing the land into four parts, leaving in rotation one fourth each new season was a marginal approach to increased production. Fertilizer in the forms of floods in the low lands bring richer top soil deposits, or the application of manures was about all they had. Maintaining oxen and even small animals was a burden and it required a lot of animals and a lot of manure to fertilizer even a garden plot.
Rodale publishing has an excellent book ”Composting“ which covers several methods that will be of interest to readers-especially gardeners.
A case in point: I raised goats for a decade and averaged about 200 square bales or 5 round bales of native grasses from the hay field and plowed that into my quarter acre garden after the goats had digested it. The actual production of the 5-acre hayfield was about ten round bales in a dry season and once I recovered 19 bales in a wet season, which incidentally I would plow under too. This made for a rich garden soil but the time spent in decomposition to release valuable nitrogen requires a quartering fallow plan. I really think that the 13th century farmers on up through the great famine periods in Europe were incredibly miserable.
Europe in the 19th century was overwhelmed with hungry people and they headed to North America. A mass migration indeed. Germany with keen science at the time discovered nitrogen as a growth factor in plant production and for a period of time sold off its production at the expense of its own people-furthering immigration out of Germany. However this discovery led to more chemicals necessary for plant growth and they started selling fertilizers. As time progressed they exploited other countries, went to war over food and the rest of the “states” in Europe did the same.
Following WWI, just 90 years ago the explosives industry turned full bore in its nitrogen production into fertilizer. The problem facing us today is that nitrogen fertilizer and phosphate fertilizer production is expensive for the farmer and the former countries, such as Chile, no longer allows export of its resources. The long-term outlook for commercial fertilizer is rising shortages, rising costs, perhaps none.
Every late spring I see local old farmers hauling tons of commercial fertilizer spreaders over their hay fields to enrich the worn out land at considerable expense. One of the factors in commercial fertilizer and always a contentious argument with the “run off” into lakes and rivers is that the fertilizer chemicals are encased in salt crystals. You are effectively spreading salt. What amazes me is that the plants as they grow taller they actually have a coating of salt on them, which in turn increases the salt intake to the animals, and the metal farm equipment is also salt encrusted causing rust. But, what bothers me for my animals if I spread salt-based fertilizer is that I am interfering with the animals sodium balance in the body, which makes for an unhealthy animal.
Another question I pose is that the salt buildup in time would have a deleterious effect on the microorganisms in the soil, further reducing the nutritional values. In addition I have noted that there are less ticks in the test plot left natural, than in the worn out hay field.
I pursue an “organic approach”, laborious indeed, time consuming and questionable in its application to commercial mega acreage farms we depend upon to feed us. A valued consideration is to apply nutrients to the plants growth that may be sold at www.7springsfarm.com in Floyd, located near Check Virginia.
For those souls involved in spreading commercial salt crystal fertilizer on their acres of land, I would recommend that you make a map of your land and check the pH in block units of space, then disc the land, followed by an old time drop spreader with dolomite lime to adjust to the right pH for the plant to absorb the nutrients. The disking is not done anymore but I think it is necessary to open the soil to the lime working as opposed to just dusting the fields. Given a couple of weeks to absorb and adjust its own pH balance you can spread your salt crystals which will be mixed in the soil and have less leaching into the water ways and get the benefits to the plants.
However I want to look at this problem of making quality hay and vegetables from a small plot management that is within the scope of one person. There are numerous sources of opinion based on modern science, which is first sought at the Local Agricultural Extension Office. My view is that all sources of opinion and research have value, it is just up to the individual to decide what they are going to do with what resources they have.
Next week we will continue with our making hay series. Our lead in picture is from Mountain Hay. Their website at: www.mountainhay.com , offers more information particularly to western and horse hay readers.
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