When I was growing up in Dover, NJ, my Dad was outside in the yard when the weather was good or bad for the better part of every day during the growing season when he wasn’t working. I can’t say I really blame him now. It was peaceful and green and there was lots for him to work on in his garden and lawn. I still remember him walking around in his khaki pants with a green hooded plastic poncho on when it was pouring out. Rain coming down didn’t stop him - he was still gardening – trying to get something done in the hours when he didn’t have to be at his office.
My parents’ marriage was a pretty traditional 1950’s old-fashioned marriage. My Dad’s job was to work hard, “bring home the bacon” and provide for us. My Mom’s job was to take care of their five little girls. Her life centered around us, making sure everyone was okay, fed, somewhat happy, got to school, and stayed out of trouble. I can remember her saying to us if we were bickering (which was a full-time job for my sisters and I), “Wait until your father gets home.” We knew that we had better not be fighting, have all our disputes finished with, and relationships temporarily mended before the next flare-up when Daddy arrived home for dinner at around 6:30.
When Daddy got home, he would fix himself a scotch on the rocks and go outside and look at his lawn and garden. I can still hear the clink, clink, clink of the ice cubes hitting his tumbler with the University of Pennsylvania seal on it. I can remember him at dinner talking about how beautiful the lawn was with nary a weed in it. He worked hard on that. I never paid much attention to it. I just expected the lush, green, pretty lawn that my sisters and I would lie in and look up into the sky and watch the clouds move by on a summer day as we dreamed about what we would become when we grew up. I’m sure now that green lawn had to be obtained by spreading umpteen crabgrass treatments and weed killers on it to make sure only the little blades of thin blue grass thrived. I’m still alive but what havoc it wreaked, I’m not sure. There was never a dandelion to be seen. Dandelions were a sign in the suburbs of an umkempt lawn and of homeowners who didn’t take pride in their surroundings.
It wasn’t until I met The Farmer and started learning about farming, hay, pasture and the things animals eat that I started understanding something about grasses. A hayfield is different than a green lawn because the idea is to grow a variety of grasses and legumes that animals will eat either during grazing season or in the winter. Different grasses have different protein and energy (or carbohydrate) values. Timothy, clover, blue grass, perennial rye grass, orchard grass, and brome grow in our hayfields and pastures. We also grow legumes including bird’s foot trefoil, alfalfa, and red and white clover. Different types of grasses do better in different parts of the country, just like trees and flowers and shrubs.
If you are interested in learning more about pasture and hayland grasses, check out King’s Agriseed website link here. This is where we have purchased our seed for our hayfields and pastures over the past few years. It's so interesting to see all that is out there.
I have learned that like a suburban lawn, it takes a real lot of work to grow a good hayfield and that it has to be maintained by constant mowing to keep it growing. When you are seeding a hayfield it has to be plowed. The rocks have to be picked. Talk about a back-braking job – I know – we did it a couple years ago on a field that is about 8 acres. Then the plowed field has to be harrowed which breaks down the plowed chunks of earth. Lastly, a mechanical seeder is used to plant the grass seeds. We either have to rent or borrow all of these pieces of equipment because we don’t own any of them.
And then you wait. The next part of the process is totally out of the farmer’s hands. You hope that the rain will come out of the sky to water the grass seed. (It’s not like a giant lawn sprinkler can help it along. Irrigation is one thing in California but it’s not something hay farmers do around here.) You hope the heat will come to help the seed germinate. And then you hope the grass grows.
At our farm, our fields are a major topic on conversation. They are either too wet or too dry… too full of thistles or nettles… the soil is too claylike…. there isn’t enough organic matter….. not enough fertility….. You get the picture. Nothing is ever perfect and everything is a work in progress. Developing a good hayfield takes years and years and years.
Harvesting the hay is a job that will be starting up soon, anyday now, in fact. The Farmer will be listening to the weather radio to try to find a good stretch of 3 days for cutting, drying, and baling. He is always in a panic to get it all done before the weather changes. Whoever thinks that farming is a no stress occupation might want to think about that assumption again! The goal is to cut the hay before it goes to seed. This provides the animals who will eat it next winter with optimal nutritional value. Once the hay goes to seed, the protein and carbohydrates decrease and it won’t be as nutritional feed.
So now when I look at a lawn, I notice other things. I notice the variety of grasses growing, the number of broadleaf plants like clover and dandelions. What actually is growing in the vast expanse of green? I must admit, the lawn around our house is a giant disaster. It’s not as important as our hayfields and pastures. It is full of all kinds of weeds but I wouldn’t even think about putting something nasty on it because our sheep and chickens frequently graze it. We’re going to be eating those eggs and that meat and I can’t even think about having them eat some kind of chemical laden grass that would later turn into food for my family and our customers.
I’ve also learned to love a field full of dandelions. After all, they have great nutritional value and they sure are cheerful and sunny looking. Gone are my days of suburban grasses. Now I think of it all differently and appreciate all the little plants for what they really are.
If you want to learn more about grasses, I suggest the book Grass Productivity by Andre Voisin. It is one of The Farmer's agricultural bibles which he turns to again and again.