ASK Jeff: The Rodale Institute’s farm manager, Jeff Moyer, answers your hardcore farming questions

Got any advice for starting hay?

Posted April 13, 2006

What Jeff brings to the table

Jeff Moyer, who’s been the farm manager here at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm for more than a quarter of a century, receives lots of mail from farmers just like you asking for advice. Jeff’s hands-in-the-dirt experience over the past 26 years has run the gamut from refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems (including managing 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market) to overseeing The Rodale Institue Farming Systems Trial®, the world’s longest running side-by-side comparison of organic and conventional agriculture. We thought it would be fun and informative to share some of these farmer-to-farmer exchanges, and Jeff’s practical wisdom, with our readers … and we’ll be doing it on a regular basis.

Got a question of your own? Click here to send it to Jeff.

Dear Jeff,

I inherited a llama farm this year, and my uncle is offering me 13 acres to grow my own hay. At present, he has still not harvested the soybeans on the land. What do I need to do to the land to prep the soil for, say, orchardgrass or alfalfa, and might it yield a good crop this fall? (How soon should I plant, and should I even expect any hay this year at all?)

Another question I have is about doing the hay on land that previously had corn on it. Should I use the same prep as the soybeans? None of the land has been used for anything except corn and soybeans, alternating every year. And none of the fields have more than about 30 percent to 40 percent weeds on them. In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t even know what to ask.

Hope you can help,
Troy Wire


Dear Troy,

Thanks for the questions. Don't worry about not knowing much about hay; we all need to start somewhere. And besides, I've seen the best in the business get it all messed up and come out with really poor hay. So don't be afraid to get started. The land you describe is perfect for hay, having been in corn and soybeans for years. It will respond to the legumes in your hay quite well.

I can't tell from the email where in the country you are, so any advice in timing would be just a guess. With this in mind I'll make some general comments about hay and leave it up to you to get back to me with specifics (or not).

In an organic situation, we normally start our hay crops with a nurse crop. This would be a small grain like oats or wheat that germinate fast and helps keep the ground from getting too weedy. The hay is seeded with the small grain. You can harvest the small grain as grain or cut it off early and feed it as green chop, make haylage, or possibly even make it into your first cutting of hay.

We normally plant our hay in spring and get a small grain crop plus one cutting of hay (this is non-irrigated ground). Then, the second year, we get four cuttings. We'll do this for about four years, then rotate into some other crop. This is for alfalfa and grass-mixed hay. By the end of the fourth year the alfalfa is about done. If you stay with grass and fertilize, you can go longer.

We cut our hay with a haybine, which cuts and crimps the hay. Then we'll ted the hay once, rake it up and bale it. You can round bale it, small square bale it, large square bale it or ensile it. Lots of choices.

Plan on cutting it about every 30 days after the year of establishment. Weather is the most critical part of making hay. You'll want to cut the hay in its prime condition. Once it is cut, the best you can do is try to preserve the quality you have. You can't improve it from this point on, only make it worse. The more you rake or work the hay, the faster it dries but the more leaves you'll knock off the stems, reducing the feed quality. Much has been written about hay production, and your local extension office can give you some solid, basic, and region-specific information.

Good Luck, and please get back to me with any questions.