Crop failure

Once, long ago, my Dad and I were trying to get a first cut of hay baled up before the rain in Delta, B.C. We didn’t make it but we baled it anyway. “Better in the bale than on the field,” Son remarked. These were small square bales. About 40 pounds bone dry but getting about one pound heavier per minute. I was pulling them off the baler and trying to stack them on the wagon. I didn’t last long. We finally quit.

Then we had to unload them in the old barn. I foolishly thought that we should leave spaces between the bales for them to dry. “No way,” said Dad. “That way there’ll be air and we’ll end up with a fire. These things will heat up badly anyway, but pack them tight, tight, tight.” Said and done.

Some days later a strange smell came from the bales. “Tobacco,” said Dad. “They’re tobacco hay.” Then he added so that Son wouldn’t hear, “Shoulda let it sit, get rained on, then dried out completely before baling, but you got to let the young guys make mistakes, you know.”

Finally the bales finished heating and the smell dissipated. A couple months later in the winter, Dad and Son took some of those bales to the other barn and threw them on the ground for the cows to sleep on. Didn’t work. The cows ate every morsel. “Tobacco hay” turned out to be better than green, dry, cured orchard grass hay.

At least it got the cows’ vote.

The crop that appeared to be a failure turned out rather a success. I suppose the farmers reading this by now have figured out that the hay – packed so tightly – formed a sort of silage or haylage, except for the edges of the stack. Still . . . not a failure. These sorts of things be there but for to teach us. We’re just not sure what the lesson is much of the time.

Right now, in grazing circles Kathy Voth is making a big change in how we view weeds by training cows to eat weeds from pastures. Even Canada thistles. It turns out that thistles and knapweed and other members of the weedus horribilis family have as much protein as many tame forages – intentionally-grown things like brome, clover and even alfalfa. 

When someone asked in an agricultural forum what to do with acre upon acre of Canada thistles (“and I won’t use herbicides”) one agricultural genius (and wag) gave this advice. “Get a Haybine and make haylage. Great feed.” No kidding.

Stinkweed. Thlaspi arvense. If your alfalfa won’t germinate well, if the timothy remains stubbornly inactive and the orchard grass gives an anemic performance in your newly-seeded field, you will still have a crop: stinkweed. The cows don’t like it, fresh or dried. But put it in a bag and wallah! a stampede. More than one farmer has exclaimed, “Maybe we should just grow stinkweed and forget about the other stuff!”

Spoiled-oat bales
The best laid plans of mice and Lesley Jackson gang oft agley (often go awry) in Lauriston Farms near Smithers, B.C. Says Lesley about her 2015 nurse crop of oats: “The oats were seeded as a nurse crop for hay and were to come off as green feed. Well, what with many equipment breakdowns and bad weather we couldn’t get all the swaths baled. My equipment is old and parts hard to come by, so many days were lost while we either fixed the machines or waited for parts. By the time everything was working again the bad weather had set in. Fortunately, we were able to get some bales.

“For several weeks during the Fall I had a black bear with her three little ones feed on the swaths we were unable to bale. I enjoyed watching them and even the dogs got that they paid little heed, until they were joined in the field by a big male. They did stay in their own part of the field but on occasion he would venture a bit closer to the house than I was comfortable with. The dogs then went into action. People had warned me about bears and their love of oats but I must say I loved having them.”

Leslie sold a few bales of oats, not as grain but bedding. And I bought a few of those bales, intending to use them as bedding for the cows during very cold weather. It didn’t work out that way. But it did work out . . . very well. Here’s the letter I wrote to Leslie about those spoiled-oat bales.

“Dear Lesley,
I thought you might be interested in a History of Your Straw Bales. It’s not “‘Twas the Night Before Xmas,” but. . . .

When the bales arrived I didn’t have the new cowshed built, so I put them on pallets and covered them with tarps. A few days later I left a gate open into that corral and my cows and bulls savaged them. I said the appropriate words, which were not a blessing.

I covered them up again and brought a bale and a part-bale to the chickens’ outside run where they shredded them for me and picked out the seeds so I could use them as mulch on some new raspberry plants, etc.

We moved the rest of the bales into the new cowshed when it was finished. As I was moving them, Rufus – a Mouse-Catching Golden Retriever – had lots of fun. I was going to use the bales for bedding when the weather got really cold – sometime when it was -25o C. or so – and then the cows could lie on straw in the sun. In the meantime, however, I gave one small “chapter” of a bale to my oldest cow. A “chapter” of a small square bale, in case you didn’t know, is a roughly square compressed slice taken from the bale. My old cow, named Cow, loved that chapter.  Since then it has been “a chapter a day keeps the boredom at bay.” All the cows look forward to the straw and oat tidbits.

Meanwhile, the mice have moved into the cowshed, which contains two round bales and your straw bales. My dog stands at the door “pointing” and when I open the door, he pounces, but rarely gets anything. When my wintertime friend whom I named John Wesley Weasel shows up, he’d thank you for his dinner, if weasels could talk.

So you might say that I got a great deal when I bought those bales from you. I’d like to thank you on behalf of the birds, the mammals and the earth for providing all of us with your “failed” crop.



  • Curt Gesch and his wife lead the singing via Zoom for a combined service of small United Church congregations in central B.C. each Sunday morning. In the afternoon, they lead a Friends and Family Zoom worship from their home. If you'd like to join that service, please write Curt at moc.liamg@36hcsegc.

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