Sunday, September 25, 2011


The height of the grass doesn't determine the quality or the amount of hay.  The tops and stems do not provide food, it's in the leaves.  The real value of the hay is between the bottom and where you can begin to see through the grass.  The grass this year was very tall and thick.  This stand is dry land just outside the yard on a fence row.

As I may have mentioned before, it's all about the grass. Grass grows in some form in every type of climate, at every altitude, all around the world.  70% of the Earth's surface is covered by water.  Of the remaining 30% of the Earth's surface, only 40% of that is arable. Arable means capable of sustaining crops or pasture.  If my math is correct, that's 12% of the surface.  Of that 12%, only one third is good for raising crops while the other two thirds is good for pasture or grass.  Animals, like cattle, are able to double the amount of the Earth's surface on which we can raise food by eating the grass and transforming it into high quality protein.  In addition, these animals are able to consume  the parts of plants people don't eat like beet tops, soy vines,  the residue from breweries and biodiesel processing plants, to mention a few, and turn those into protein as well.  While some is composted, there is too much and for esthetic and health reasons would have to be disposed of in landfills or dried and burned.  It's much more environmentally friendly to have cattle eat it, turn it into protein for human consumption and other by products.  My neighbor who builds power and biodiesel plants for a living did point out to me that it wasn't by accident that many of the bio fuel plants were built next to large feedlots.

Preparing to Hay
Haying season actually began just a year ago.  After we had put up the equipment last fall, we spent time preparing some areas of the dry land hay ground for the coming year.  There is a reason that the area we live in is called the Rocky Mountains.  It seems that we are able to grow rocks.  Every other year we spend time picking up rocks. Even though we had cleared the area of rocks, they seem to grow back over the course of time.  The removal of rocks helps to prevent costly break downs in both money and time.
The designs on the baseball diamonds are made in the same way as the designs in our fields, by dragging. The design will be gone within a couple of weeks as the grass begins to grow.

In the spring when the snow goes from the fields, it is time to "drag" all the fields.  We use a harrow which looks live a very large net made of steel.  It has 4 inch spike like protrusions which go down into the sod. It is called dragging because we hook it up to the hitch on the tractor and drag it across all of the hay fields. This serves a number of purposes.  First, it smooths the ground.  Pocket gophers dig tunnels under the ground and this harrow knocks the tunnels down flat. Running equipment across smooth ground is good for the equipment and good for the back of the tractor operator.  If we're lucky, it discourages the gophers and encourages them to move to a different area.  The spikes put scratches through the sod helping to reduce compaction.  As time goes by, sod grows thick and doesn't allow water or air to get to the roots of the plants.  Putting scratches through the sod allows for water and air to reach the roots.  It also allows seeds to settle in these scratches and not be washed away by wind or heavy runoff so the seed can begin to grow when the conditions are right.  These are all the same reasons that the urban lawn owner  had plugs pulled from their yard in the fall.   An additional reason for dragging the meadow is to spread the manure all across the irrigated hay ground.  That is where we fed the cattle all winter and spreading it out not only makes sure that the manure fertilizes all parts of the meadow but also keeps the fresh manure from burning the grass.  Our fields respond being harrowed in the spring.  It seems to stimulate growth and the grass really begins to grow after being harrowed (dragged).  This is something we do every year, no matter how much fuel costs.  We cut back on other things but never on such an important part of the maintenance of our hay fields.

The next preparation for haying which happens in the spring is the spraying program. Before you can spray weeds, the sprayer must be checked for any leaks. Then the sprayer needs to be calibrated.  The pattern of each nozzle must be checked and the output of each nozzle is checked.  Then, the output of sprayer is determined for the speed that the tractor travels.  This lets us know the rate of application so we can use the chemicals correctly.  If you use too much, depending on the chemical, you not only waste money but more importantly may do long term damage to the area.  Following the application guidelines is extremely important.  Our sprayer is pulled by one of the tractors and holds only 250 gallons.  Anything larger would be more likely to roll on the steep hill sides where we must go.  Not only are the weeds sprayed in the dry land hay fields but also in the pasture.

In our state, there are certain weeds that land owners are required to control.  There is also a list of weeds which landowners must control put out by the county.  We have always waged a war on weeds with a spray plan for both spring and fall since we took over the ranch in 1975.  Jim's father engaged in a stringent weed spray plan before him.

Weeds are, by definition,  plants which grow where they are not wanted.  A tomato plant in the middle of a lawn could be considered a weed.  Weeds can come from a variety of places and must be taken care of before they squeeze out the native species of plants. Sometimes weeds come as seeds within hay bales which come from outside the area.  Most of the ranchers we know are very cautious where they buy their hay from.  Another way weeds enter places is by starting out as decorative plants which then find the area too well,  I understand the kudzu in Florida actually began as a plant sold by nurseries as ground cover.  Toad flax which looks like snapdragons is such a weed found here in our county. Sometimes the seeds are carried into the area in the coat of animals.  White top was brought into our county in the coats of sheep and we've been fighting it ever since.  Each plant produces thousands of seeds which look like powder.  These seeds can lay dormant for up to 30 years waiting for the right conditions. 

Toadflax is a weed which is on Colorado's list of noxious weeds.  It looks like an ornamental which has escaped from someone's garden.
Whitetop is thought to have been brought into the region in the fleece of sheep. It's seeds can lie dormant for a long time until the time is right for them to grow.

At the same time, the irrigation systems must be set up.  This year was an easy one for irrigating.  We had enough rain that the only system we used was flood irrigation.  This system is actually engineered.  It has to be well thought out and since this type of system depends on gravity the degree of fall of each ditch.   This is where water is brought to the field from the river through a big ditch.  Our ditch was built in the 1890's. From the main ditch, the water flows out at three different places into medium ditches.  These are called laterals.  Smaller ditches stretch out across the meadow from the laterals.  All along the ditches are places where a network of really small ditches spread out and  carry the water to all parts of the field.  The ditches are set up in such a way that it's easy to dam the ditch to force water out across different parts of the meadow.  It takes about 2 weeks for the meadow to dry enough to begin to cut the hay off.

 We didn't have to use the side roll where a big pipe runs across the field.  There are places where a hose  connects the big pipe carrying water to another pipe which has spray heads which cover a 30 foot wide swath all across the field when water flows into the system with force.  We also didn't use the water reel where a spray head is attached to a 5 foot reel which roles up the hose at a specific speed.  The water guns sat silent all summer also.  The water guns are the same kind of sprinklers that most parks use.  The biggest difference is that ours is about 5 feet tall rather than 3 to 4 inches.  Maybe we'll need them next year.  It was certainly a wet season and irrigation wasn't needed.  

How can you tell that hay season is done here at the Stanko Ranch?  The hay is all stacked.

Stacking the last of the round bales.  They are just the size we like for our equipment, almost 800 pounds each.

The small bales are for our son's horses, our horses, and filling the feed bunks when we wean calves. 

This small stack is what is left over.

This year we ended up with the 180 ton to feed our cattle over the winter plus an additional 105 ton.

The equipment has been readied for winter.  We use our equipment for a long time.  Because we live in such a harsh climate, our equipment requires special care.  First, each piece of equipment is cleaned thoroughly using an air compressor and paint brushes to remove all grass seed and residue.  That is followed by every inch being powerwashed and set out to dry.  After it has dried, each grease zirk is filled with grease and every chain is oiled.  Finally, each piece is put under shelter in the various sheds to be protected from the heavy snow and extreme temperatures.  This maintenance  program has  paid off.  The side delivery rake has served us since 1975, the stacker wagon since 1979, the small baler since 1985, and we expect the new 2-year-old round baler will be with us for a long time.

The final sign that hay season is over is that we receive visitors to our ranch to learn about how we manage our grass.  I guess since the family has been sustainably  ranching here on the same land for over a century and have been awarded the Leopold Conservation Award for Colorado in 2010, we have earned a certain amount of credibility with our management practices.  We always point out the we are the norm, not the exception in caring for our land.

The first group of visitors were for the Land Stewardship Class.  They were made up of real estate agents and a group of landowners who have never ranched before yet want to learn.   Some had small 35 to 40 acre properties while one of them had just purchased a ranch larger than ours. 
Land Stewardship Classes

The second group of visitors were from Afghanistan.  We know one was from their version of the Department of Agriculture and not sure who the other two were.  They were two men and a woman.  They were interested in our conservation and range management practices and to learn how we had managed with just two people to do the work that it used to take 10 to 15 people to accomplish and other technology.  It always amazes us when people bring different delegations here to visit.  In the past we have hosted a delegation from Uganda and a film crew from Moscow.

It was a cold rainy day when the delegation from Afghanistan visited.  It was interesting to find out that they were so delighted to be invited into the house to see how we lived.  While they had visited feedlots, other ranches, veterinarians; we were the first to invite them into our home and serve them cookies and tea.

There is so much more to tell about haying, so on Wednesday, I'll blog about determining when hay is ready to cut and how  was cut in the past and how we cut it here on our ranch.

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