Growing grass for hay making
Whether you’ve got a patch of long grass which you think would make good hay or are planning to sow a patch of Timothy grass or herb mix especially to make hay for the winter months, similar rules apply to those of growing a herb patch or rabbit lawn but with the added considerations of cutting, drying and storing.
Making your own hay may not be the smartest move financially given the time and effort involved, but it can be extremely satisfying when it works and if your rabbit or guinea pig has been fed fresh grass and herbs during the summer months, home grown hay give great continuity of diet.
In the UK hay making can be a challenge in some years for even professional hay growers. If you are embarking on a new hay growing project, you will need to consider which variety of grass to grow. Timothy, Phleum pratense, prefers a slightly damp, moderate climate, with cool nights and warm days. If growing conditions are too warm it grows a coarser stem making it less palatable. In most hay growing regions of Canada, the cool evenings allow the grass to grow more slowly and the stems are consequently softer. Over fertilisation of the grass can also cause the stems to become coarser.
Cutting and drying
More important than growing the grass however, is how to cut and dry it! Many of the considerations which affect the professional hay makers also apply to home hay making. When to cut, both in terms of the stage the grass is at and the state of the weather. If you haven’t already done so, it is worth referring to our page on Hay Quality for some of those considerations.
The easiest way to cut hay for home use is the traditional way, with a scythe. The classic time for hay cutting is during the school summer holidays which were designed in the first place to allow children to help with the family hay harvest when all hands were required to act when the grass and weather were right.
The grass should be turned over with a fork or rake to allow it to dry evenly. It can also be dried by placing it in a layer over a fence, traditional hay rig or on the top of the outside run! After it has dried in the open for several days (and hopefully not blown away, become scorched or rained on, it can be gathered up and stored for winter use. Further ‘barn’ curing is necessary as to feed hay straight off the field would cause digestive upset and in the case of chinchillas can be fatal. During curing, the sugars in the grass break down still further.
Many herbs were traditionally dried for the winter months by rabbit stockmen breeders, the most valuable of which would have been nettle and clover. Both plants are good sources of protein, but nettle is high in iron whereas clover is high in calcium.
Crushing the nettle stalks with a rolling pin before drying allows them to dry at a similar rate to the leaf. Nettles lose their sting once dried and are a good source of vitamin C in the winter months.
Any herb or wild plant you would feed fresh in season can be dried as herbal hay for winter use.
Always harvest when fresh and green, as with grass for haymaking, and dry well before storing. This is extremely important as herb hay which is mouldy can be toxic.
Store in a cool, dry place in brown paper bags.
Suggestions for inclusion in a herbal hay
Herbs you may want to consider drying include agrimony, avens, borage, calendula (the flowers are a good source of vitamin A), chickweed (a good natural source of copper), cleavers (an excellent spring tonic), coltsfoot (guinea pigs love this herb), dandelion (but don’t feed too much as it is a diuretic), goat’s rue (aids lactation), golden rod (a great plant to feed as the plant grows back even bushier when you harvest the tips), lemon balm, common mallow, marshmallow, meadowsweet (a natural source of salicylic acid – the active ingredient in aspirin), melilot, mouse ear, plantain, shepherd’s purse (good for scouring) and yarrow.
You don’t need a garden to grow your own forage. Must grasses, cereal grasses and wild plants will grow quite happily in seed trays or pots indoors. In winter months you may want to invest in a daylight spectrum light, which has the added advantage of helping prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) in humans.