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The complexities of hay, explored on Homer Grown


The old adage “make hay while the sun shines,” is fine for locations that don’t have a lot of overcast and summer rain, but what does it mean for farmers on the Southern Kenai Peninsula, where summer sunshine has traditionally been a rare commodity?
    “Of course you make hay while the sun shines, except on The Kachemak. Here we have to figure out how to make hay while the rain is falling,” said Chris Rainwater, the chair of the Homer Soil and Water Conservation District. He appeared on the most recent episode of Homer Grown with Desiree Hagen. “Because often there is the sun one day out of five. And so it turns out there is ways that you can make hay while the rain is falling. I swear, they invented the disc mower just so that you could mow in the rain.”
    On Homer Grown, Rainwater, who raises beef cattle on the family farm, explained that hay is not just mowed grass.
    “This hay that we see here stacked in round bales has got all kinds of things in it. Besides grass, the grass is the dominant tonnage, but under the understory is clover and nagoonberries and dandelion leaves. And, and they're actually the most easily digested of the hay that we feed,” he said. “So it's a complex deal, this stuff we wind up in string and call hay.”
    Rainwater said it's his experience that younger livestock benefit the most from a diet of high quality hay.
    “When these young calves and young horses are still growing and in their first winter, they're the ones that need the higher quality feed, ‘cause their teeth and their digestive systems haven't yet grown to the point of being able to process a roughage. So that's the stuff we select for the young stock, beef animals and colts, that's where you want to put your best feed is into them. Because the larger animals, they got these immense teeth that grind this stuff very fine, and it turns loose all the nutrients and the calves still haven't gotten their big grinders in yet. And so they're the ones that need the high quality feed,” Rainwater said. “I don't know nothing about sheep and I don't know anything about goats, but bison and horses and cattle, that's a pretty universal truth there, feed your best stuff to your young stock.”
    Rainwater said it appears that climate change may be changing the make-up of his hay crop.
    “I used to describe my hay mix as Timothy, Bluegrass and Clover, but it has changed. I now have Timothy, Brome and Clover and the brome was living down there like a mouse under the feet of elephants for 40 years. But for some reason, and I don't know whether it is climate change or what, but the bluegrass walked back to take that little place and brome is now emerging,” he said. “And I think if I had to declare, you know, what it was, it's soil temperature. But the brome is a very beautiful hay grass. It just wouldn’t thrive here in the 50s and 60s and 70s.”
    Nevertheless, grass being a perennial plant, Rainwater told Hagen his fields have much the same makeup as when they were planted nearly 70 years ago.
    “I think this grass here that we're sitting in is the same grass that was planted in 1952, the original Engmo Timothy. We've broken and replanted. Sometimes you get winter kills that will decimate the stands. If you get heavy ice, the grass actually smothers underneath it. And so we've broken and replanted from time to time,” he said. “But I think the cultivars that they had available in 1952 are better than the ones they got now. And so this stuff here is probably the original seed imported from Norway.”
    You can hear more about hay -- including the importance of getting a laboratory assessment of any bales you plan to buy -- on ‘Homer Grown with Desiree Hagen,’ posted now online at


Local News Desiree HagenHomer GrownHay
Originally from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia, Desiree has called Alaska ‘home’ for almost two decades. Her involvement in radio began over 10 years, first as a volunteer DJ at KBBI, later as a host and producer, and now in her current role as a reporter. Her passions include stories relating to agriculture, food systems and rural issues. In her spare time, she can often be found riding her bicycle, creating art from handmade paper, or working in the garden.
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