In March we had a few days into the sixties and the alpacas were ready to go to pasture. Of course, there was still snow on it. Green grass is a favorite food for alpacas. However, in northern New England it is only around for a few short months. The rest of the time, they are stuck with hay.
Twenty years ago, when we first got our alpacas, we were told that they liked ‘second cut hay’. We weren’t sure what that actually meant. I don’t remember how we found out, but we learned a lot about hay when it came time to buy it. We also learned, by trial and error, how to find a good hay supplier.
Grass starts growing like mad in late April or early May in our neck of the woods. Farmers who grow hay find it long enough to cut in late May and June. This is the first cutting of hay. It’s good and many types of livestock do fine with it. Even alpacas will eat it, but they don’t like the harder stalks within the bale so won’t eat those. Nobody wants to pay for bales and then have a good part of them wasted. Just like your lawn, after the first cutting, the grass continues to grow. But it doesn’t grow as fast in the hotter, dryer months of summer. In late August and September, it is long enough to cut again. This second cutting is softer and generally has no stalks, so the alpacas eat it well.
Now we come to the part where we find out what ‘flavors’ of hay their majesties will eat best. We read that Orchard Grass Hay was the best for them. They did not read that. We planted it in the pasture and found it was the last grass they would eat and mostly they made poop piles on it. Our latest hay guy brought us a load of that a couple of years ago, and they just wouldn’t touch it. He was a champ about it and for a modest fee, came back and took all the hay he’d just stacked and returned it to his barns. He then brought us ‘grass hay’, which they liked much better. ‘Grass hay’ is just a mixture of different types of grasses and includes some clover and, well, weed bits, that the alpacas love.
This past summer was very dry, which always causes us anxiety, which I’m sure the hay farmers feel as well. By early August our pastures were dried up and we were feeding all hay, which was getting low. We contacted our hay guy to see if he had any leftover second cut from the prior year. He had some early second cut he’d gotten from Rumford, Maine, so he brought us some. The alpacas scarfed it up, so we had him bring over 200 bales, which is a bit less than a third of what we need to get us through winter. It was a tad stalky, which made me wonder if it was really first cut, but when you are desperate, you don’t fuss. The grass hay the alpacas liked the best came from Chatham, New Hampshire, which didn’t get cut until mid-September. The drought had made the cutting thin, so the bales we got were loose and light. The alpacas loved the Chatham hay, but still ate the Rumford stuff once they’d finished their Chatham allotment.
By late December, it seemed as if we were using up the Chatham bales at an alarming rate. We know that we need to have enough hay to get through the summer. Even though the alpacas would be on pasture starting at some point in May, they still would get some hay. (May brings black flies, which forces the poor things into the barn to get away from them.) So we contacted our hay guy, using my usual method of posting via Messenger. Thank goodness for Facebook Marketplace and, specifically, the New England Hay for Sale site where we found him. He did not have any square bales left except for Orchard Grass, but he did have round bales of grass hay from New York state.
Now round bales are huge. You see them at a lot of cattle farms, sometimes wrapped in white plastic. Hay farmers love them as they are much easier and quicker to process than square bales. But folks like us, who have hay lofts for storage, and compact tractors, cannot store them. Our intrepid hay guy suggested he bring just one huge round bale and drop it inside the front part of our barn. He would then put aside a couple more in case we needed them later.
The big beast of a bale, that we soon started calling ‘the hay ball’, arrived on a snowy evening and hay guy and friend, both young, rolled the thing as best they could to a spot a bit away from the front barn door. That door faces east, northeast, and nor’easter storms lets snow come in under the door to drift for a few feet. Moving, even at a roll, is not easy when the thing weighs a ton – literally.
Round hay bales are like jelly rolls. The hay wraps around and around. A green netting is wrapped around them to keep them from falling apart. Once the netting is cut away, we can pull the hay out for feeding. The first time we did that, we thought the hay was wet. It was limp and smelled, well, boozy. But there was no mold and the alpacas loved it. It had the best of grass hay, with the timothy heads, clover and leafy bits of weeds and weed flowers. But the alcohol smell was fairly strong. No worry, said our hay guy. If they are ruminants (i.e. chew their cud) they will be fine if a little fermentation has occurred. The white plastic-wrapped bales ferment a lot, he said, and cattle, with their multiple stomachs, have no problem with it. Alpacas are modified ruminants so can tolerate the boozy stuff in the less fermented netted bales. Okay, so we worry that they love the hay ball too much, but they are thriving on it and now the Chatham and Rumford hay bales are second and third choice.
We are now trying to figure out how we’ll break it to the herd that come next Fall, they will have to be all on square bales, which don’t get infused with the lovely ‘boozy’ smell. Oh well, maybe a summer on grass will help them forget….