What is Hay? (with photos)

A bale of hay produced from a hay baler.

Hay is the general name for a series of dried grasses, flowers and other plants used as out-of-season food for horses and other animals. Growers often grow rye, oats or alfalfa in large open fields and wait until the leaves reach a specific maturity, usually just before the flowering stage. The grasses or plants are then cut with machines and left to dry in the ground for several days. At this stage, excessive rain can be problematic. Some haymakers will turn the cut grass for more even drying, a process called mulching.

Hay can appear in a maze.

After the grass or alfalfa is sufficiently dry, it is mechanically collected by a machine called a baler. The back section of the baler creates rectangular or round bales of hay held together by wire. These bales are left in the field until other workers can pick them up. Traditional rectangular bales are usually stored in special barns called hays or haystacks. Modern round bales are usually stacked in a dry place outdoors and covered with a special plastic tarp for weather protection.

Some producers grow oats to make hay.

Fresh hay bales continue to dry in place for several months. As the bales are relatively heavy, the compression force can help dry the bottom of the bales even faster. One problem farmers face is the excessive heat generated by compressing wet grass in the center of bales. For this reason, most haystacks in barns are airy and open. If hay is stored in unventilated areas, excessive heat can cause an attic fire.

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Alfalfa continues to grow throughout the year, so haymakers can mow the same field up to three times before the winter freeze.

During the winter months, or in areas where fresh grass is not readily available, farmers and ranchers often rely on hay to feed their horses. It’s not always as nutritional as regular food, but it contains enough vitamins and roughage to keep animals healthy for a few months. It might help to think of it as a form of granola or breakfast cereal for horses. Some hay supplies can rot or ferment, making them useless for food, but ideal for garden mulch.

Hay is used in livestock care to provide insulation in animal pens.

Since rye and alfalfa continue to grow throughout the year, hay producers can mow the same field up to three times before the winter freeze. This can be beneficial for local farmers and ranchers as supplies can get dangerously low at times. Some hay sold as emergency or low-cost feed can lead to malnutrition and other problems, so producers who can provide high-quality bales in bulk are often very popular in farming circles.

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