Hay time on the prairie

Grass plus water = ?? 
July is hay time on the prairie, all around us are sickles and mowers and hydro swings cutting hay, raking and baling. There is always an urgency in the air during this time, as hay cut and rained on loses much nutrition and value. So upon cutting one’s concern leads immediately to the next rain storm. But the process of curing hay cannot be hurried – a day or two with dry, breezy weather is needed to dry it down before it can be baled. Once baled the rain is not nearly as damaging.

We do big round bales here on the Missouri Coteau, destined for frosty-faced beef herds this winter. The old days of small square bales we used to toss in my cousin’s barn are gone. While those bales weighed in at 60-80 pounds, a big round bale will go 1200-1600. And so a 130 pound kid tossing hay bales these days better be behind a 60 horsepower tractor or better with a bucket and grapple.

North Dakota Mixed Grass Hay

A rancher wants a good mixed bale of hay – grass and alfalfa. This provides enough roughage and protein to get his herd through winter. Alfalfa is a remarkable plant, with 15% protein or better, deep roots and the ability to regenerate enough to allow three or four cuttings a year. Dairymen want pure alfalfa, or something close. We are not dairy country, we are beef country. We have good mixed bales.

Ducks are not so particular, as they tend to nest wherever they can find suitable cover. At Prairie Smoke Ranch that is often in the pastures, or the hayfields. But while a cow will graze right around a nesting hen, sickle mowers are not nearly as judicious. For that reason, we delay haying as long as possible. Some of our hay is subject to US Fish and Wildlife Service easements – it can’t be hayed until after July 15. That is a compromise date, before which most ducks are off their nests and their broods have found safety in the nearest pothole.


North Dakota alfalfa, after first cutting

North Dakota has more National Wildlife Refuges than any other state, the result of a buying spree in the Dust Bowl years. It took USFWS a while however to discover a mistake in their approach. For example, one refuge just north of us surrounds the shore of our favorite walleye lake. Great water, but few ducks, and no duck hunting.

Although the feds bought lots of water, water alone does not produce ducks. We now know water without grass helps only a handful of diver duck species, which nest over water. Mallards, gadwall, pintails, teal etc. need grass, and lots of it. A 10:1 ratio of grass to water is not too much. That thin strip of shoreline around a wetland or lake often causes more harm than good. Coyotes, foxes, coons, skunks and any other hungry critter passing by the narrow strip of cover can locate nests easily. And then --dinner is served.

Here at Prairie Smoke Ranch we leave sizable buffers around all our wetlands. I know we lost a few nests during haying but there are broods on every pond as this is written, some with multiple broods.

Some of these North Dakota broods have already “fledged” and are doing test flights (e.g. early nesters like mallards and pintails), others just hatched out days ago.

But now it is hay time on the prairie, and the giant prairie clock has advanced a few more minutes toward October and the North Dakota duck hunting season. Can’t hardly wait.

The author is a former US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Department of Agriculture manager. In retirement he owns and operates Prairie Smoke Ranch, located in central North Dakota, the duck hunting hub of the northern plains. All rights reserved.
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