Homemade Hay Feeder

20170612_095651Hay constitutes most of the diet of farm animals found on the homestead. Pulled directly from the ground by the animal consuming it is the most nutritious, but that’s not always an option. Fields need to rest, winter stops hay growth, and some folks don’t have the land to dedicate. There is any number of reasons a homesteader might feed hay. If that’s the best option for your circumstances, go ahead and do what’s right for you. I wouldn’t presume to know what’s best for someone else.

Besides the importance of maintaining condition of the hay, the method of feeding it is also important. Animals tend to make a mess. They are picky and go for the tastiest parts first. I often hear farmers caution that cows will eat the center out of a round hay bale to the point the outside collapses, sometimes causing injury.

In addition to store-bought feed we supplement for the known vitamins and parasite medication, we try to feed hay as much as possible. One of the many projects on my Honey-Do List is fencing off additional paddocks to use for rotational grazing. Until that chore is complete, the sheep will be largely on dry hay we bale through year.

My goal is three hay cuts a season, but between fires, unpredictable summer weather, using mostly borrowed equipment, extensive travel for work, and plain old inexperience, I’m doing good to get two mediocre cuts.

Our hay needs on The Five Cent Farm are modest with nine ewes, but with a soon to arrive ram, those needs will increase, if I can get Apollo to do his job. I’ve seen his results on my neighbor’s farm, so I’m confident that despite middle-age creeping up on the old boy, he’ll continue to produce long enough to expand the flock.

The big problem we were having with feeding the girls hay was two-fold. We get a lot of rain and any bales placed on the ground wick water up through them, so it becomes a race between moisture moving up and sheep eating down.

The second problem is the tendency for sheep, mine at least, to stomp all over bales as the pick through it, ruining hay they would normally eat while scattering around hay they might eat later, depending on how hungry they are.

Neither Mrs. Cunha nor I were happy with what we viewed a wasted resources in loss of finished hay and the time and effort to get it that way. Not wanting to re-invent the wheel, we set out to steal a few good ideas from other people and incorporate them into one of our own.

This is what we came up with presented in photographs. Feel free to steal some ideas yourself.

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Protect Your Hay Investment

7ccc760f6b117192a424a4b7f45b4ed69bfa1b21b8555f0233pimgpsh_fullsize_distrWhether you grow your own or purchase, proper hay storage is a critical homestead skill to possess. The longer your winters, the more important hay storage becomes to the survival of your animals and the homestead itself.

This past week, we put up fourteen hundred bales of fescue at my place. Combined with the eight hundred bales from the first cut earlier this summer, my math calculates the yield at 2.1 tons per acre. Talking with my County Extension Agent, this is at the low end of the “normal” range in my area, but not a complete disaster, given that it has been a bad year for hay with everyone down about thirty percent.

Considering I haven’t done anything to the field, aside from admire it and daydream a bit, I’m reasonably happy for a first harvest.

From talking to neighbors and the previous owner, it’s been some time since the field had any TLC, so I’ve kept my expectations modest.

Mrs. Cunha and I bought the farm without benefit of owning a tractor or haying equipment. Since we didn’t have money for both, and a rented house with a yard full of idle farm machinery didn’t make a lot of sense, we figured the absolute worst case scenario would be that the field was left fallow for a couple of years, while we saved our pennies.

As it turned out, the solution was something of a middle ground that would not have been possible without the help of my neighbors. Through a combination of work ethic, industriousness, and shares of the harvest, we managed two cuttings. The understandable downside is my field is mowed last. As a result, the second cut had begun to sour in the field and there likely won’t be enough growing time for a third cut this season.

Considering we expected the field to be a total loss this year, we’re thrilled.

0610161332Even after parceling out shares and Mrs. Cunha selling some of the hay with her brilliant idea to give a discount to buyers who pick theirs up out of the field, I am still up to my ass in hay. Each nook and cranny of every available structure is stacked to the rafters and then some. In a way, I’m glad there probably won’t be a third cut because the only option left for storage is to pull the cars out of the garage and stack bales in there, too.

Let my worst problem in life be that I have more resources than I know what to do with.

Besides the obvious solution that I need more and bigger animals to chew their way through my problem of awaiting the near certain winter hay shortage, maintaining the quality of the fodder becomes the issue.

Hay, and any other crop, begins to degrade the moment it is separated from the ground. From there, the race to the consumer begins. For products with a longer timeline to consumption, the battle for preservation involves more preparation than it does rushing down the road to the farmer’s market.

For hay, the goal is to maintain as much nutritional quality for as long as possible. We square bale for several reasons; lack of and access to equipment, availability for suitable storage space, our farm needs, and local market demands. Round bales don’t work for our needs and goals, but if you find them effective, don’t change what works for you.

How ever you get you hay, both bale types have the same storage requirements to maintain them at the highest nutritional level possible. To that end, there are basic steps to preserving hay and minimizing waste:

Get it inside

Gigantic rolls of hay sitting in a field are a common sight during the summer in my area, but with all the summer rain we get, they tend to form a hard, protective crust around the outside. Kind of like the shell of an M&M, but proportionally thicker. That shell is also wasted hay of between four and twenty percent, according to the Mississippi State Extension.

2deb267d8d5a921ce67b315d36bae2a3f11c98412303b6c8fbpimgpsh_fullsize_distrIf you’re set on round bales, I recommend you read their Minimizing Losses in Hay Storage and Feeding. It’s the best sixteen pages of knowledge I’ve read recently. It’s also free, so that’s a bonus.

Whether you’re in the square or round camp, all hay benefits from being taken in out of the elements. Hay needs air circulation, but exposure to wind, moisture, and sunlight diminishes nutritional quality rapidly. The bale spoils from the outside toward the center and eventually reduces to an inedible block. Even round bales will degrade to the point where livestock will refuse all but the very center.

UV rays, moisture, and wind will eventually erode the pyramids of Egypt to nothing. Hay is far less durable than limestone.

Keep it dry

Rainfall is not the only source of moisture. Runoff, leaky barn roofs, water dripping from trees, and even condensation forming inside a structure can be sources of moisture that can either prevent hay from drying in the first place or promote mold and rot.

Even if you don’t have a traditional barn or some sort of structure in which to store your hay, anything is usually better than nothing.

At a minimum, rig up a tarp to keep at least most of the sunlight and moisture off it. If you’re absolutely broke or completely out of options, stack the bales tight with some sort of tall post in the center and drape one of those cheap blue tarps over it like a circus tent.

I can’t guarantee how well it will work, but it beats doing nothing and watching money turn into grey, inedible scabs. And for Pete’s sake, don’t let sit in water.

Let it breathe

Even though hay dries in the field before baling, there is still some drying that occurs after. It generally takes about one to three weeks for the moisture content to stabilize. For that to happen, air needs to circulate around, and to a lesser extent, through the bale.

Hay bales should be kept off the ground. Until we ran out of them, we laid down old tires left in the woods to keep our hay bales off the ground. We then switched to wooden pallets we scored from the co-op, Tractor Supply, and anywhere else we could mooch a few free ones.

5006289f62d46f695ce350b6c6e3117bc93f7d32f6515cb80bpimgpsh_fullsize_distrOnce we drank those wells dry, we had to come up with something else. The brilliant Mrs. Cunha jury rigged pallets from my stash of 2x4s in the garage. Beautiful, creative, and ingenious; I married way above my pay grade.

This is where things get interesting. And by “interesting,” I mean “dangerous.” And by “dangerous,” I mean “you accidentally burn down your barn.”

The tendency is to pack as much hay into the barn as possible because space is always in short supply. I’m as guilty as anyone, but there is risk involved. During the one to three week curing period, hay bales give off heat. Packed together in a big enough mass, they sometimes give off enough heat to set the hay on fire.

I can’t quantify the risk. Although, I imagine my insurance agent can and has. Old Timers talk about hay catching fire like it happens every week during summer, but I don’t see nearly enough burned down hay barns to make me think it’s any more likely than an accidental pregnancy.

Then again, I have six kids. Your mileage may vary.

Watch for mold, rot, and critters

Of the three, critters are probably the most fun to deal with. Mrs. Cunha isn’t the sort of woman to jump at the sight of vermin, but she and I have been known to mount an afternoon pellet rifle safari. Otherwise, we let the barn cat prowl around and leave us the occasional gift on the door mat. She must think we’re terrible hunters and wants to make sure we eat. Either that, or it’s tribute.

Definitely, get a couple of barn cats.

a090dd9125771308d722c0fbd05d9be87d29f7777471ba9962pimgpsh_fullsize_distrMold and rot aren’t as exciting to chase down. They just kind of lurk, but can be more damaging. Both can set in from the outside, which makes it easier to find, but mold, in particular, will grow and spread on the interior of a hay stack.

Keeps your eyes open, inspect your hay, and dig into the hard-to-reach parts every once in a while. Quite, unfrequented areas of your storage space are likely locations for birds, coons, and possums to take up residence. Spot checks won’t magically guarantee wildlife squatters won’t show up, but will help in catching them early, so you can evict them or take measures to discourage them from returning.

That’s Rule #2 on the Cunha farm. Go be wildlife somewhere else, because if you take from me, I will most assuredly take from you.

There is loads more to hay and farming that I don’t know. I freely admit that, but there are resources available. These are a few I have found helpful and informative. The best part is they are delivered straight to you, in your pajamas, no less, through the magic of the internet:

Storage of Small Square Bales by John Worley, Associate Professor, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension

Square Bales Need TLC by Angus Beef Bulletin

Tips on Hay Storage by Dwain Meyer, PhD, North Dakota State University and Krishona Martinson, PhD, University of Minnesota

Selecting and Storing Horse Hay by Krishona Martinson, PhD and Paul Peterson, PhD, University of Minnesota Extension

Sizing and Siting Hay Barns by University of Missouri Extension

Minimizing Losses in Hay Storage and Feeding by Mississippi State University Extension

Making the Best of a Bad Situation – Storing Large Round Hay Bales Outside by University of Florida IFAS Extension




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L'homme Theroux CoverIf you’d prefer something more tangible in return for supporting my work, please preview my novel L’homme Theroux and consider purchasing it, if you enjoy the sample chapters.

Lost Arts of the Homestead

1How4Before homesteading was a lifestyle choice, it was everyday life. Subsistence farming and self-sufficiency were not undertaken by people who were sick of the rat race and in search of a simpler life. It was where people came from.

According to the United States Labor Department, the average age of farmers and ranchers in the US is fifty-eight, a figure that has been increasing for the last thirty years. And not too surprisingly, those old farmers have probably been at it for well over a decade. As it sits right now, about half of all farmers are old enough to draw Social Security.

The Industrial Revolution was largely defined by reduction of the labor necessary to operate a farm and the freed up labor that could move to urban areas where work was available. Depending on the specific industry and which historian you ask, the Industrial Revolution ended somewhere in the middle or toward the end of the nineteenth century.

I maintain the urban migration patterns set in motion by the Industrial Revolution are still occurring.

Both of my parents grew up farming, and they never talked fondly of it. My father joined the Navy in order to escape the small Nebraska town he grew up in. My mother flatly refused to live anything like a country life and regaled my brother and me with stories of the horrors of farm life. My favorite was her job at seven years old.

1How8It would seem the Industrial Revolution didn’t quite make it to 1950’s Azores, Portugal. Threshing grain on Grandpa’s little patch of dirt consisted on laying it on the ground while leading the milk cow around in a circle over top of it. My mom’s job was to follow behind the cow with an old coffee can to catch whatever might come out of the south end of a north-bound cow, so as to not foul the grain.

Use your imagination as to how enjoyable that was to a girl in the first grade. However, if I could get in a time machine to watch the spectacle, I’m certain I would have laughed my ass off.

If you had to be raised by my mother, you would enjoy the preemptive humbling, too.

I’ve written before about the homesteading skills my Grandfather passed to me before he died, and I wish I had started learning earlier, taken notes, and practiced more. By the time I started studying under the old man in earnest, he had probably forgotten more skills and tricks than I will ever know.

1How3Old Miguel wasn’t some wizard who held all husbandry skills in a Homesteading Necronomicon protected by a fire-breathing dragon surrounded by a moat full of mutant alligators.

He was the man to whom I had the easiest and most access, but any of my relatives from that generation were deep wells of knowledge about making a farm work. They embraced those skills and their proficiency in them, instead of rejecting them. My parents always seemed embarrassed by that knowledge. My grandparents were not only proud of what they could do, but eager to impart it to whomever would listen.

Had I paid closer attention, I would have far less to learn, now that I have my own farm. In my defense, I spent my youth with farming as the furthest thing from my mind. I did pay a bit of attention when I was a kid. Early adulthood demanded a passing understanding of some of those skills, especially when driven by lack of money to hire work done around the house.

Shocking yourself while changing out a light switch is the best way in the world to always remember to turn off the breaker.

Here’s a list of what I think are the ten most important skills for homesteaders. Your list might be different, and my selections might be different in a few months. Feel free to comment with additions, replacements, or generally tell me how stupid I am.

Build a fence

0102161547_resizedGrowing up, my parents made part of their living in real estate, flipping houses and renting out other properties. Not a single one of them had a fence that made it out alive, and as a result, I built enough fence to completely seal off the border with Mexico.

Except for the shift from wooden residential fencing to working with wire of various types, it seems my life hasn’t changed that much. Good fences not only make for good neighbors, but also, make for not having to chase your animals all over the Tennessee Valley. I’ve gotten to be pretty handy with a pair of lineman and fencing pliers.

Soil composition

Hay may be grass, but the grass I’m growing now is nothing like a lawn. A bag of Scott’s Turf Builder won’t do a thing for my field. It’s measured in tons. If it weren’t for my County Extension Agent, the local co-op, and knowledgeable neighbors, I’m sure I would burn my crop beyond edibility.

Since I don’t know loam from kitty litter, learning how to take a soil sample becomes vitally important. It’s under ten dollars to have a chemistry nerd in a no-kidding laboratory play with the dirt you send him, and have returned a report stating exactly what to add to your field to maximize your selected crop yield.

It’s absolute magic, but they keep the dirt. I’m not sure what they do with it, and part of me wants it back.

Grafting and propagating roots

My Great-Uncle John taught me a couple of simple grafting techniques when he performed absolute magic by getting our apple tree to throw three different types of apples. He did the same thing with an orange tree next to it. The skill isn’t difficult to learn, and for a subsistence farmer, greater variety from fewer plants sounds like a winning plan to me, especially since I’m one of the cheapest men currently living.

1How9Fully a third of the plants I’ve grown were acquired from someone else as a cutting. That older generation I keep praising is remarkably generous passing out cuttings along with knowledge.

And if you are planting a large space, knowing how to propagate multiple plants from one root ball can reduce your costs significantly. It takes planning to allow for the time necessary to get the roots to the point they will survive life outside, but I’ve never met a homesteader who didn’t like to save money.


1How10Now, that you’ve collected a bumper crop of whatever foodstuffs you grew, you might have a problem. Specifically, “What am I going to do with all this food? My family can’t possibly eat it all.” This is a good problem to have. There are starving, Yadzi slave girls in Syria who would love to have this sort of problem in life.

I probably should have called this section “food preservation” because it’s really about saving today’s excess for some time in the future when you might not have any. Canning, curing, drying, and storing in a cellar all answer the question of what to do with excess and preserve food far longer than with refrigeration. And don’t forget treats like fruit cocktail, jellies and jams, and even pickles are all forms of canning.

Be sure to spell it with a double “n” or it’s a whole different thing you may or may not be interested in.


Some folks have qualms about trapping. Most of it stems from the uninformed perception that foothold traps are designed to either inflict pain on the caught animal or in disregard of the animal’s suffering. I blame Walt Disney for his anthropomorphizing animals in his movies.

I would argue that snares are the least humane of the various trapping methods, but compared to the myriad ways Mother Nature kills animals, strangling to death might be preferable to starvation, mange, or being struck by a car because mostly all of them end with being eaten alive by coyotes, ants, or a bear once too weak to stand.

Standing policy on the Cunha Homestead is “Whatever takes from me dies when I catch it.”

1How7Those who won’t trap to protect what’s theirs are free not to. There are plenty of ways to protect livestock, and I employ many of them, as well. I just find them less effective.

Once you get tired of picking up decapitated chicken corpses, repairing wildlife damage, and wondering what happened to your crop yield, I’ll happily teach you whatever I know. It’s part of being generous with knowledge.

And don’t forget that depending on your state’s regulations, the time of year, and the prevailing market, selling the pelts can put a little cash in your pocket.

Dispatching, dressing, and butchering

Unless you’re one of those vegetarian homesteaders (I guess there is such a thing somewhere), you will have to come to terms with the idea that you are a dealer of death. I don’t particularly revel in that status, but I take quiet pride in my skill at rapidly and humanely ending an animal’s life. We go to a lot of trouble to raise our animals fat, dumb, and happy, so I see no reason to inflict cruelty on them in the last moments of their life.

After months, and sometimes years, of feeding, caring for, and fussing over little creatures that often come perilously close to becoming pets, you then have to remove the inedible parts and reduce it individual servings of protein.

I have a buddy who has homesteaded far longer than I, but neither he nor his wife can bring themselves to butcher their animals. We call their place “the petting zoo.”

My wife hasn’t gotten to the point where she can dispatch our livestock, but she goes to town on the dressing and butchering. She also has zero qualms about hunting, so I think it really has to do with the caretaker role she fills with the animals.

Reload ammunition

Even though I’m a contender for title of World’s Cheapest Man, I probably won’t win, since I and the sponsors of the award are all too cheap to pay the expenses of attending the ceremony.

I wasn’t always the thousandaire you see before you today. Much of my adult life was spent prioritizing each bill that came in, and occasionally making the choice between electricity and diapers. A speeding ticket had the potential to bring on financial ruin until the next tax return season.

It’s only been a handful of years that I don’t lose my mind whenever food goes bad in the refrigerator…because we should have eaten the leftovers first.

My father taught me how to reload ammunition as soon as I was old enough to wander into the garage to annoy him. Come to think of it, I was reloading before I was shooting. It was time consuming, but it filled evenings and rainy weekends with activities better than sitting in front of the television.

1How6As an adult, I took the parsimony a step further and began casting my own bullets, which is the most expensive component, assuming you don’t have to replace the brass case. It turns out that discarded wheel weights, which up until recently were available at literally any tire shop, make perfectly good bullets once processed.

Chalk up another win for cheap-asses.


Along the same lines as fencing, homesteaders spend an inordinate amount of time building and repairing structures. If a house is a constant stream of repair projects, a barn and a couple of outbuildings becomes a flood. It’s a rare farmer who has the cash available and the time to wait for a real carpenter to come out.

Even if you don’t have fancy power tools, you’d be absolutely amazed how much can be repaired with hammer, saw, and pliers. Oh, and duct tape. Even astronauts rely on duct tape.

photo12For most jobs, short of erecting a building from the foundation up, it’s usually quicker and easier to grab a hand tool instead of going through the trouble of employing the powered version. A sharp, quality saw cuts through a board surprisingly fast with good technique. Besides, electricity isn’t always available.

Making soap

My wife is the soap maker in our family. I understand the process, but let it be her thing, while I act as cheerleader and helpmate. It’s a good use for all that milk and animal fat you won’t know what to do with once the homestead gets rolling.

At the risk of letting out too many secrets, homemade soap is one of those products non-homesteading women go gaga over. Drop in some herbs to scratch their skin up a little, tie a rustic-looking bow around the bar, and you will have a winning farm product.

Use words like “handmade,” “all natural,” and “free range,” and you’ll sell out at every farmer’s market.

Sharpening tools

Aside from a county official with a clipboard, there is little in life that is more dangerous than a dull tool. Whether a knife, an ax, or a chisel, any task you put that tool to will be completed fast, safer, and better than were it dull. Even a shovel should have somewhat of an edge, if it will be thrust into the ground.

1How5Shaping an edge with a file or honing it with a stone is probably one of the trickier skills to learn, but useful in life far beyond the farm. I’m frequently flabbergasted at the number of people I encounter performing tasks with dull tools. It’s one of those things that drives me nuts.

Keep it sharp and let the tool do the work.

Even if the only knives you own reside in the kitchen, the same need for a keen edge and the techniques to achieve it apply.

These skills are not just useful on the homestead. Most of them can find use wherever you call home, but I picked them more for their rarity.

I can understand urban dwellers, with their easy access WalMart and Kroger’s, not having a terribly strong knowledge of how to butcher an animal or put up food for long term storage against a shortage in the future. Then again, maybe they should, but that’s another article.

These are lost arts to a large degree. Or, at least, fading rapidly. Arts that deserve wider dissemination than they have. A generation or two ago, an adult without these skills was looked at sideways.

Luckily, there is a flow in the other direction. Interest in these skills is rekindling, and those for whom they have always been a normal part of life are in a position to make sure the practical application of these skills survive. Books and internet are great, but hands-on is the best. There is no teacher like demonstration, and there is no learning like doing.

Be generous with your knowledge.


3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you content, behind the scenes access, and goodies not available on the main site.