Valley Bounty: First-gen farmer making hay in Conway

  • Hay is seen arrayed in windrows on the farm in Conway, ready to be picked up by the baler. COURTESY JASON SILVERMAN

  • Hay is picked up from the windrows and baled using a baler. COURTESY JASON SILVERMAN

  • Hay is seen arrayed in windrows on the farm in Conway, ready to be picked up by the baler. COURTESY JASON SILVERMAN

  • Jason Silverman poses with one of his tractors. COURTESY JASON SILVERMAN

  • The baler lifts hay from the windrows and shoots finished bales into a cart. COURTESY JASON SILVERMAN

  • The baler lifts hay from the windrows and shoots finished bales into a cart. COURTESY JASON SILVERMAN

For the Recorder
Published: 8/3/2020 11:32:39 AM

Jason Silverman, the owner and operator of Windrow Farm in Conway, is a first-generation hay farmer. He has had a passion for hay ever since a family friend gave him a toy tractor as a gift when he was a child.

“I noticed the same tractor next door, on my neighbor’s hay farm, and really just latched on,” he explains. Mesmerized by the equipment, and the process of creating hay, Silverman went on to “spend summers chasing farmers around town and attempting to bale his parent’s carpet in the winter.”

Silverman studied environmental science at Greenfield Community College, and Sustainable Food and Farming at UMass. Looking to combine his love and expertise for farming, rotational grazing and ethical meat production, he founded Windrow Farm in 2012 with plans to raise high-quality, ecologically sound hay and grass-fed beef. The first summer, he grew 9 acres of hay, and kept a few steers (castrated male bovines) on a family friend’s land.

“It was a trial by fire summer,” Silverman explains, with the steers constantly getting loose. He got rid of them at the end of the first summer, and started really focusing on hay production, with the hope of incorporating beef again further down the line.

Today, Windrow Farm is exclusively a hay farm, growing 42 acres of hay. All the hay is processed into small square bales, 40-50 pounds apiece, perfectly suited for horse farms, goat dairies and backyard livestock operations. Silverman produced more than 5,000 bales of hay last year and was hoping for similar returns this year, though extremely dry conditions have resulted in lower yields.

Hay is somewhat forgiving to less than ideal weather, but does best with cool temps and lots of rain in the spring followed by a hot and dry summer. “You need enough moisture for the grass to grow, but enough dry weather for it to cure well,” Silverman explains, citing the old adage, “cool wet May, barn full of hay.” While the dry conditions in the Valley did mean lower yields for hay farms this year, it provided perfect harvesting conditions.

All the fields that Silverman grows have a combination of grasses, including timothy, orchard grass, fescue, perennial rye and some clover. While these grasses naturally reseed a little bit each year, hay is a perennial, meaning that it comes back from the roots every year. Silverman takes a hands-off approach to management, explaining that the best thing you can do for grass is to mow it or graze it.

“The process of creating hay is basically mechanical grazing,” he says. This method, of allowing natural reseeding to happen while also working to ensure the fertility and pH levels of the soil are well managed, allows each field to continue producing what it is happy producing, rather than struggling to force one species to thrive.

This variation among fields also allows Silverman to work with his customers and provide hay specific to their needs. Older horses, who sometimes develop problems with their teeth, may do better with more fescue, a hay known for being soft and easy to chew. The variation in fields also protects him from weather variations. The fields with the highest yields this year are those better able to retain moisture, the same fields that Silverman found himself cursing in 2018 when Conway was inundated with rain. “There was standing water on the hillsides,” he says with a laugh.

Each year Silverman works to get two, sometimes three, mowings per field. The resulting hay is referred to as first, second, and third cut. In the first cutting of hay, the grass is at its reproductive stage, sending up a stalk and seed head. After this is cut, most of the plants give up on their attempts to reproduce for the year, and instead focus their energy on growing leaves to photosynthesize and maximize their growth.

Although the seed head does contain some proteins, the leafier second cut hay is better feed. “First cut is like lettuce, and second cut is like spinach. Both good, both healthy, but one is much more nutritionally dense,” Silverman explains.

The first cutting of hay gets started in late May or June, and usually continues into mid-July. The second cut follows very shortly after in August and September. “If I’m lucky I might get a week off between cuttings,” Silverman says. In some years he has been able to get a third cutting of hay on a few fields in September and October. The shorter and cooler days means the hay takes longer to dry in the fall, however. Successful third cuttings are rare, but they mark a joyous end to the season, and a last hurrah that Silverman strives to make happen.

After the grass is cut using a hay mower, it must dry out before being baled, which typically takes three days of warm and sunny weather. The hay is ted using a tedder, a piece of equipment that aids in drying the grass by exposing new surface area to the sun and wind. The grass needs to be down to a 10-15% moisture range before it is ready to be baled. However, if hay is ted too many times it becomes brittle and will begin to decompose.

After being ted a few times, the hay is raked into long, narrow piles known as windrows. This gets the hay ready to be picked up by the baler, and lifts material off of the ground, allowing for better airflow. Finally, in the afternoon of the third day, the hay is baled and stored in a cool, dry barn.

While Silverman exclusively bales small square bales, round bales also play an important part in our local food system. Containing the same amount of hay as 12-15 square bales, and weighing hundreds of pounds, round bales provide an efficient way to feed larger livestock operations. The round bales that you see wrapped in white plastic allow farmers to process grass into hay in a shorter amount of time, and bale with a higher moisture content. In the plastic, the hay ferments into something known as silage, or haylage — an important part of the haying industry as seasons become increasingly unpredictable.

Silverman is at capacity this year for customers, but always loves to connect with people producing food and fiber. Find Windrow Farm on Facebook, Instagram, or at windrowfarm.wordpress.com.

Looking for hay or any other locally grown products? Find it all in CISA’s searchable online guide, buylocalfood.org/farmguide.

Emma Gwyther is the development associate at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.




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