farmers harvest hay from the 1900 farm fieldsWhat is Hay?

Hay is a plant that has been cut, dried, and stored for animal feed. Many plants can be used as hay, but in Iowa today, alfalfa and clover are the most common. As Americans moved west onto the Great Plains in the 19th century, they would often use the prairie grasses that were growing there to feed their livestock.

Hay versus straw: Hay and straw are commonly confused. Hay is made from the stems, leaves, and seed heads of plants that are fresh. It is cut and baled when it has the most nutritional value, and is fed to livestock. Straw is also made from the stems and leaves of plants, but is cut after of the plants have been allowed to mature and the seed heads have been harvested for something else. Straw has very little nutritional value, and is best used as bedding for animals.


alfalfa illustrationHistory of Hay

Many different plants have been used throughout history to feed animals. The first farmers on the prairie would cut the prairie grasses and use them to feed their livestock. Timothy grass and clover, both plants native to Europe, were the most common plants used for hay in the early 20th century.

Alfalfa quickly replaced timothy and clover after it was introduced in Iowa at the end of the 19th century. Alfalfa became the most common plant for hay. It is believed that alfalfa is native to in central Asia where it was first used to feed animals. Alfalfa spread rapidly to all parts of the world. By the early 1700s, alfalfa was being grown in Central and North America. By the mid-1700s, the British colonies of New York, Virginia, and Georgia all reported growing alfalfa. By the 1850s, alfalfa was being grown in California.

Today, alfalfa is still the main plant for hay.

How Crops Become Hay

In general, three steps are required to turn a green crop into what can be called hay: cutting, drying, and baling. Then, hay must be stored properly in order for it to hold onto the nutrients. If hay becomes wet, or if it sits in the sun, nutrients can be lost.

Cutting Hay

Cutting hay has been, and can be, done in many ways.

  • By hand: For thousands of years, hay was cut with hand-held tools like a scythe.
  • By horse-drawn machine: In the 19th century, many machines that could cut hay were invented that could be pulled with horses. Many hay mowers were invented in the 19th century.
  • By machine pulled by a tractor: When tractors were invented, the hay mower was improved as well.

farmers use the hay rake at 1900 farm, creating windrowsDrying

Hay must dry before it can be baled. When hay is cut, farmers leave it in the field and allow it to partially dry. Then the farmer will rake the hay into what are called windrows. Rain can damage the hay the most at this stage. Rain slows down the drying process, and too much rain can cause the hay to begin to spoil in the field.

Baling Hay

The first hay baling equipment was invented in the late 1800s. These early baling machines were stationary, and the hay had to come to it. Hay was carried by hand to wagons that then took the hay to these early balers, where the machine pressed the hay into square bales. By the 1930s, hay baling equipment could be pulled by tractors and pick up the hay from the ground. This saved the farmer a lot of time and energy!

hay is used as an animal shelter at the 1850 pioneer farmStoring Hay

Stacking is the oldest method of storing hay, and different parts of the world stacked hay differently. On the Iowa prairie in the 1840s and 1850s, these stacks sometimes doubled as housing for animals. As the farm improved, larger barns were built that could store more than just tools and seed. Large barns often held massive amounts of hay stacked in the center. In 1900, loose hay was stored in the barn. The hay would be carried by wagon to the barn where it would be put into the hay loft.

Interesting Facts about Hay

How many acres of hay were harvested in Iowa in these years?

  • 1900 – 2,577,000 acres
  • 1957 – 3,744,000 acres
  • 2016 – 910,000 acres

farmer leads a mule pulling equipment to lift hay into the barnHow many tons of hay were produced in Iowa in these years?

  • 1900 – 3,608,900 tons
  • 1957 – 7,938,000 tons
  • 2016 – 3,210,000 tons

What was the value of the hay crop produced in Iowa in these years?

  • 1900 – $23,458,656 (in 1900 era dollars)
  • 1957 – $123,039,000 (in 1957 era dollars)
  • 2016 – $294,915,000 (in 2016 era dollars)

Sources: 1900: 
Van Hooten, G. H. The Iowa Yearbook of Agriculture. Des Moines:  B. Murphy, 1901.1957: Iowa State Department of Agriculture. Second Biennial Report of Iowa Book of Agriculture. Des Moines: State of Iowa, 1958. 2016: United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Services.


Hay Today

Today, the process for growing hay still involves letting the plants grow to maturity, then cutting it, letting it dry in the sun, raking it, and gathering it up in some form, whether that be round or square bales, or as loose hay. Farmers today have different technology and equipment for growing, baling, and storing hay.

Farmer inspects the soilPreparing the soil

The land is prepared like it would be for any other vegetable crop. Farmers will test the soil to determine if any fertilizers need to be added. If needed the farmer will then add the appropriate amount of fertilizer. The field must be free from weeds as much as possible.  Weeds will make it difficult for the alfalfa, clover, or timothy to grow.

Planting and growing

Some fields are always used to grow hay, and don’t require re-planting every year. In other cases, hay is a part of a crop rotation, where farmers plant different crops on the same field in different years. Hayseed can be a mixture of many types of seeds, with alfalfa, clover, and timothy being among the most common. The seed can be planted many ways, from being spread by hand for small areas, to being planted with machines like a grain drill.

John Deere disc mowerCutting hay

Cutting hay is done when the hay has the most nutritional value. Usually that is after about 60 days when harvesting alfalfa for hay. The same field of hay can be cut two or three times in the same season. Machines that can cut hay are called mowers.

Today there are two types of mowers used to cut hay that can be pulled by machines.

  • Rotary disk mowers have several round discs that cut the hay.
  • Sickle bar mowers have a bar with teeth that cut down the hay.

round bales in the fieldStacking and baling

Throughout the 20th century, hay baling equipment continued to improve. In the early part of the century, a machine was invented that could make round hay bales. Round hay bales were not common until after a professor and a group of students at Iowa State University came up with a much improved design for a machine that could make round bales.

In the mid-1960s, Wesley Buchele, a mechanical engineer at Iowa State University, working with graduate students, developed a mechanical baling machine that would produce a giant, 700 lb. round bale. One person with a tractor could handle these huge bales, from harvest to baling to transporting to feeding livestock, without ever touching the hay. Today, round bales are the most common way to store hay in the United States.

Transporting and Storing

Transporting baled hay to the barn today is done either by moving each bale with a tractor (which takes a long time!) or putting many bales of hay onto a wagon and taking to the barn that way. Today, square or round bales of hay can be stored in a barn or other outbuilding with a roof to protect it as much as possible from the weather. Hay that is left outside has some sort of covering to protect it from the weather.

Video courtesy of iowadairyboys

horse eats hay in the 1900 barnUses of Hay

Feeding hay to livestock is the number one use for hay.

Almost any animal on the farm – horses, cattle, sheep, goats, etc.- will eat hay. Hay is usually fed to livestock when they cannot graze or be in a pasture, either because it is winter or because of drought. Different animals have different nutritional requirements. Farmers carefully monitor what an animal is eating, to make sure the animals are healthy. If hay spoils, it is not good to feed to animals, as rotten hay can make livestock sick.



Bale: A large bundle of raw or finished material bound tightly together with cord, and sometimes wrapped; examples: a bale of hay or a bale of cotton

Baler: A machine that bales hay

Hay: A grass that has been cut, dried and stored for animal feed

Livestock: Useful animals raised or kept on a farm

Mower: A machine used to cut grass

Native: The place where something came into being, or a person was born. (I was born in Iowa, so I am a native Iowan.  Alfalfa is native to central Asia; that is where it was first found to be growing.)

Windrow: A long line of cut hay laid out in the sun to dry