Ideal weather sees farmers rushing to make haylage

A richer variation on hay must be cut, dried and quickly wrapped airtight

“On arrival the rake is box-like and surprisingly compact, but it then unfolds like a praying mantis and extends its arms.” Photograph: John W Anderson

“On arrival the rake is box-like and surprisingly compact, but it then unfolds like a praying mantis and extends its arms.” Photograph: John W Anderson

 

Coming in off the busy country road is a large, open field with a narrow channel at one end leading into a further three creating a complex of paddocks spanning about 30 acres.

Bordered by thick hedgerows, the grass is rich, a type of rye grass sown for a specific purpose. Eventually it will be feeding international showjumpers in Europe as well as competition and domestic horses at home and across Britain.

But before that there is a process to be followed, a traditional practice once performed slowly and laboriously, mostly by hand. Nowadays the mowers are huge vehicles, high off the ground, while the raking is also mechanised. These heavy machines are currently moving around the countryside in convoys, transforming green fields to paler, flattened, lawn-like spaces, instant running tracks ready for an impromptu horse race.

Seldom has the cliche “making hay when the sun shines” been as true as in recent days. The perfect weather has provided farmers with ideal conditions. Robinson Farms in Maynooth, Co Kildare, is a fourth- generation family business begun about 100 years ago. By today the Robinson eight-man team will have cut, raked, baled and wrapped grass from about 350 acres in Co Kildare.

Weather permitting, about the same or more could be done later this month.

Ancient practice

This is the first of two or possibly three cuts done over each summer season, again depending on the weather.

Hay-making is an ancient practice. Yet this past week’s activity is more specialist; the cut grass is being made into haylage, which is moist, richer, more nutritious than hay and far less dusty.

The process is also more speed-intensive than hay. Instead of fearing a potential downpour, haylage must be protected from its own moisture, which is both its natural advantage and its enemy.

The cut and baled haylage must be wrapped airtight while moist. This moisture content is crucial. Should the plastic wrapping become torn, mould will develop and the haylage will heat and rot.

But that is unlikely to happen. The Robinson operation is conducted with military precision. It all begins with the mower arriving and having driven around the headlands, or edges of the field, the driver then divides the field in half and works on.

It is hugely satisfying both to do and to watch, particularly when the sun is shining.

Once the cutting is complete, the tedding begins. This process shakes and dries the grass for 72 hours, depending on the weather.

Raking and baling

The giant rake then enters. On arrival it is box-like and surprisingly compact, but it then unfolds like a praying mantis and extends its arms, gathering the grass into neat rows. The baler comes along. The Robinson operation uses a Krone, a 10-ton green and yellow contraption from Germany.

It picks up the grass, which then emerges in the form of 300kg square bales. Best of all is the Irish-made McHale wrapper, a cross between something from a toy factory and a high- speed knitting machine.

Moving cartoon-quickly, it methodically applies eight layers of plastic wrapping to each bale. Every stage is done with care.

At intervals a teleporter lifts the wrapped bales on to a long, flat truck which drives away, carrying 40 bales at a time to be stored at the family yard up the road.

Later this week there should be about 3,000 large bales. In time over the winter some of these will be opened and repackaged into portable 20kg bales. Each year the farm produces about 60,000 of these small bales. They are a familiar sight at competitions throughout the country, in the back of jeeps.

The distinctive white-and- green packaging will be seen standing outside stables during the forthcoming 143rd Dublin Horse Show, which opens at the RDS on July 20th .

Second cut

By then the Robinson team will have, weather permitting, completed a second cut. Other fields which are sown with Timothy-grass for hay will also have been mowed and raked. Unlike haylage, hay is dried with a hay drier. The process is less demanding.

While haylage has been feeding showjumpers, event and dressage horses and amateur and general domestic hunting and leisure horses, more and more trainers have switched from hay, the traditional forage for racehorses, and are now using haylage.

International riders and trainers have long been interested in Irish horses and are now even feeding the same forage.

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