How We Reclaimed our Hay Field

Pastures and hay fields require regular maintenance like everything else on a homestead. Here's how we reclaimed our neglected hay field.

Just a few weeks before we bought Oak Hill, a brush fire had scorched the woods and the fields.

The blackened soil stopped right at the bottom of the hillside where the volunteer fire department had held the flames at bay.

The fire was a blessing in disguise, since it "cleaned" the land of all the brush and sapling trees. It left the most beautiful hay field. The warm-weather native grasses were lush and green when we moved here the following August.

That first spring the field lit up with Indian paintbrush and other wildflowers. I was thrilled to find a big patch of wild blackberries, because blackberries are my favorite berry. I couldn't believe my good fortune: I would be able to pick all the blackberries I wanted for free every year.

How we reclaimed our neglected hay field.

We gathered quite a collection of shed deer antlers found in the hayfield.

Our neighbor cut and baled the hay on shares for a few years, and after that we baled the hay ourselves by hand for several more seasons.

How We Reclaimed our Hay Field

Over the years the brush began growing again. The blackberry thickets expanded and new thickets sprang up, planted by birds on the wing. Sapling trees began to grow again.

How we lost control of the hay field

Then a series of unfortunate events caused us to lose control of the hay field.

  • We had a barn fire in January of 2012 that claimed all of our stored winter hay. Our daughter and son-in-law helped us fix the barbed wire fence around the hayfield so we could let the horses out to graze for the rest of the winter. (Sadly, after the fire we no longer had goats that needed to eat hay.)
  • Horses eat the grass and leave the weeds. Those weeds grow and choke out the grass. Eventually the brush became thick and the blackberries were spreading at a very alarming rate.
  • Our ancient used tractor developed several problems which were ultimately fatal.
  • And then hubby's health went downhill in a pretty major way.

How We Reclaimed our Hay Field

How We Reclaimed our Hay Field

This field serves as my horses' winter pasture.

Actually, at this point it was a perfect pasture for goats. Although I'd lost my herd in the barn fire, friends gave me kids from their own herds so I had four young Nubian does and a buck that would have loved browsing the trees and weeds in the hay field.

However, coyotes run through this field daily, it's quite far from the house, and the field is fenced with barbed wire which is terrible fencing for goats. (If you'd like to know what kind of fencing does work for our goats you can read about it here.)

Paying for new fencing was definitely not in our budget.  

As for the coyote problem, our Pyrenees had both passed away and it takes years for a new pup to mature and protect his or her herd.

Using goats to reclaim the field just wasn't an option at that time.

If I'd been able to let my goats forage in this field, they would have done an amazing job of reclaiming it. If you can do this, you are fortunate indeed. Goats love blackberry thickets... and poison ivy... and sapling trees!

The goal

My goal: I need this field to support my horses over the fall and winter, but these methods will work if you wish to cut and bale hay too.

Horses eat grass but not weeds, and they prefer new growth, near the ground, instead of tall grass that has gone to seed. In our mid-South location we have tender, new grass growing under the existing forage almost all winter long.

Maybe in the future I'll be able to rotate the goats through this field during the year to eat the weeds and improve the pasture. In fact, goats are incredibly valuable for this use, and are worth having on your homestead.

Our plan to improve the hay field

So we made a three-part plan to reclaim the hay field that didn't include using goats.

Part One: We hired a land clearing company to eradicate the blackberry thickets and sand plum saplings that covered acres and acres of the hay field.

In one long day their equipment shredded the canes right down to the ground and turned them into mulch. It was money well spent and really impressive to watch. (Watch the video below to see the machine in action.)

Part Two: With the new tractor we purchased last fall, hubby will be able to keep the blackberries as well as the weeds and saplings under control. He cut the field several times this year and will have to keep up on it, but it should prevent the blackberries from taking over again.

Part Three: We reseeded with a native grass mix, which I broadcast by hand.

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Our prolific spring rains brought the grass in the hay field back to life, and it's as pretty now as it was when we first moved here fifteen years ago.

We are excited at the thought that the field will again be productive.

Once again I've been able to watch deer grazing in the far corners of the field in the early mornings and evenings.

How We Reclaimed our Hay Field

Pastures and hay fields need maintenance like everything else on a homestead

Now that fall is upon us, hubby will brush-hog one more time before winter, concentrating on the areas that were thick with blackberries last year. In spring we'll seed again and proceed with our grand plan.

The moral to the story is.... don't let your pasture or hay field get out of hand in the first place. Fields require regular maintenance, just like anything else on a farm or homestead:

  • Brush hog/mow your field regularly, on a schedule that works best in your location (or use goats!).
  • Keep the brush under control; dig out the saplings by hand if you have to.
  • Don't let your love of blackberries blind you to the fact that the thickets are taking over.
  • Contact your extension office for recommendations based on your location and the type of grass or legume you are growing.
  • Have soil tests done on your field and add the amendments that are recommended.

Regaining control

But if your fields do get out of hand - or for that matter, if your life gets out of control - remember that change starts with a single step, a decision, a taking of action.

Decide first that something has to be done, that you can't let things go on as they have.

Then decide what to do first. A simple step like researching options or maybe a big step. Just make a decision and get started.

Then stick to your plan. Experts say it takes thirty days to start a new habit or to break an old one, and this is no different. Persistence and patience are key. Improving our hay field won't happen in one day; it's going to take a year or more. But we're in it till the end.

How about you?

Our 3-part plan to reclaim our hay field.

How to keep your homestead pastures under control and how to reclaim a neglected field.

Our hay field was neglected and overgrown, and was taken over by blackberry thickets. Here is our 3-step plan to get it back under control.

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