Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Nature's First Green Is Gold

I have been really busy over the past few weeks working on an order of custom jumps, including a beautiful but time consuming faux brick wall. Therefore, I have not had much time to write. However, in honor of the arrival of spring and the new green grass, I wanted to take this opportunity to share an article I wrote several years ago about how hay is produced, featuring a local farming family, the Ritchies of Inglewood Farm.


“Nature’s first green is gold” – Robert Frost

When spring comes at last after another cold, bleak winter, and the fields of Virginia start turning green, this poem always comes to my mind. For to horse owners and the farmers that supply them, the green grass truly is gold – beautiful, leafy, gold-green hay.

To walk a mile in Bill Ritchie’s shoes, you’d better be fit, hard working, patient, part mechanic, part weatherman and love working outdoors. You also must handle stress well, multitask and be good at dealing with people. A farmer’s life is not an easy one, but Bill Ritchie, of Inglewood Farm in Bealeton, VA, wouldn’t trade it for anything else. “I love the fact that I just walk out of my house and I’m at work. No commuting,” he explains. “I also like that I do something different nearly every day.” 


Farming is a Ritchie family tradition. Bill’s grandfather, Wilbur Ritchie, originally purchased Inglewood farm approximately 70 years ago. He had four sons, including Bill’s father, Calvin, who was the only one to stay on and farm the land. In addition to the farming, Calvin started a grain business, Fauquier Grain Company, which was later sold and became Fauquier Feed. While Calvin was busy with the grain business, which included bagged and bulk feed for a variety of livestock and fertilizer, Bill grew up farming and gradually took over that aspect of the operation.

The Ritchie family turned its full attention to farming once the grain company was sold and expanded the business by leasing land. They currently farm approximately 2000 acres, of which the family owns roughly 500. In addition to producing hay, Inglewood Farm grows and harvests soybeans, corn, wheat and barley. The wheat and barley both help produce another golden “byproduct” – straw. Inglewood is also known locally for having the best sweet corn in the area. I can personally attest to that; if you see the “sweet corn” sign out on Route 17, a few miles south of Bealeton, it is worth the trip up the long gravel drive to pick some up.

The average person might think that producing hay is easy… it is, after all, just dried up grass, right? The process is actually surprisingly complex and takes about three days to complete. First, the grass is, indeed, cut and allowed to lie on the ground for a day. The next day it is tedded, or fluffed, to allow for better and more thorough drying. On the third day, the moisture level is checked with a tester – Inglewood does not bale any hay which tests over 15% moisture – and then raked into rows. Once raked into these windrows, it can be baled immediately.

Of course, this is assuming that the weather is good for three consecutive days. Cutting is planned with this in
Tractor pulling a round baler
mind, which is where accurately predicting the future, or at least the weather, comes in handy. Despite all efforts, sometimes the cut hay does get rained on, in which case it is baled and sold as mulch hay. The farmer must work long hours during nice spells, trying to get as much work done as possible while the weather cooperates. Thus the expression "gotta make hay while the sun shines."

The soil must also be properly prepared and maintained for optimum production. Generally speaking, the soil only needs to be tilled every three or four years. Seeding is also done at this time, though overseeding may occasionally be of benefit in between tilling cycles. Fertilizer is applied in early spring, with additional nitrogen applications between cuttings throughout the season.

Depending on a number of factors including type of hay grown and the weather, a farmer can expect up to three or four cuttings from a hay field over the course of a growing season. The first cutting, which is usually harvested in early May, is a bit coarser than subsequent cuttings, but it also yields the most hay per acre. Bill estimates that he can harvest roughly 100 bales per acre from the first cutting, whereas that number drops dramatically to 20 or even just 10 bales per acre for later cuttings.

Raking hay into rows
Orchardgrass, timothy and alfalfa are the most commonly produced hays in our area. Inglewood focuses on orchardgrass hay but also grows a little timothy. They offer both the traditional square bales and the much larger round bales. All hay is stored inside immediately after baling. Inglewood is fortunate to have acquired a hay stacking machine in recent years, eliminating the arduous chore of stacking the square bales manually, as many farms still must.

Bill cautions that hay production is the least profitable of his farming endeavors. He further recommends that anyone interested in hay production consider the difficulty of making a reasonable profit. The machinery is expensive, both in initial cost and maintenance and repairs. You must also consider fuel, fertilizer and seed costs as well as labor costs, unless you have free help at your disposal. He emphasizes that “you really have to have a decent amount of acreage as well – preferably several hundred. You just can’t make a profit on less acreage.”

In addition to the cost, there’s the sheer hard work. You must endure long days in the blazing hot sun and being assaulted by insects and dust. .Inglewood is fortunate to have tractors with climate-controlled cabs, but many farmers do not… I have seen many homemade “shades,” including umbrellas tied to the tractor; as they say, necessity is the mother of invention.

Rows of hay ready for baling
Our hay producers have certainly earned our respect and thanks. It is a very difficult job, stressful, tedious and unpredictable at times. So many things can go awry, particularly in regard to the weather… a drought or particularly wet season can ruin a crop. Yet our horses depend on the fruits of their labors, quite literally. It is important that we help support our local farmers and, on a larger scale, that we care about and help conserve the open land and the environment itself on which they (and we) depend. Otherwise, the last line of Frost’s poem may come to fruition on a permanent rather than cyclical basis: “Nothing gold can stay.”

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Oh shed, spring is hair again!


Aaaahh... spring is here again, and with that comes the seasonal rite of shedding. Horses shed particularly heavily in spring, then more lightly in fall. The accompanying photos were taken just recently, as my horses are trying to lose their winter coats to allow their summer coats to shine through. As you can see, some horses lose a dramatic amount of hair in what I like to call the "mangy horse" syndrome. Older horses in particular seem to like to grow a LOT of winter hair, then have to get rid of it all in the spring. Sometimes it comes out in lovely patches. The molting look is very unattractive!

A little to the left, please
Benefits to manually shedding:

The local birds get a bonanza of soft fluff to build their nests and cushion their fragile eggs. OK, they get that when a horse sheds naturally by rolling and rubbing on things as well.

Less hair on your trees and fences

Good arm, hand and finger exercise for the human shedders, even if you use tools...

Great opportunity to bond with your horse, spending some extra time and attention on their care and comfort

Grossing out your prissier friends

Yeah, right there
Downfalls of manually shedding:

Very dirty hands and fingers - it is amazing how tenaciously that grime sticks to the area under your fingernails, in particular!


Some horses can be a little sensitive or ticklish - be gentle and be careful!

Loose hair never, never, ever will wash out of your clothing

Enough of it will wash/dry out of your clothing to line the walls of your washer and dryer and "infect" your previously hairless clothing

Grossing out your loved ones

Feeling itchy yet?
Go ahead, sneeze

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Gadgets and Gizmos

First, let me apologize for my lengthy absence. No, I didn't get tired of writing the blog - I've missed it, actually! No, I'm not a lazy slacker (not usually, anyway - I have my moments. What happened was that karma bit me in the butt. I had the audacity to write a post about winter survival tips at the very end of winter season and, as a result, the "dusting" of snow we were supposed to get here in Virginia turned into 4 - 6 inches of heavy, slushy, tree limb breaking snow. I lost power on Wednesday morning and didn't get it back until Sunday. To add insult to injury, when the power came back on, the surge killed my computer! It was plugged into a protector, just not, apparently, a very good one. Anyway, I finally managed to retrieve my information off the old hard drive (no, I did not have current backups, shame on me, another lesson learned the hard way!). Sooooo... glad to be back!

Over the years I have discovered various items and gadgets to be indispensable on the farm. One of these invaluable gizmos is the head lamp. Now, I must admit that the first time I saw someone wearing one of these
Hi Ho, Hi Ho
lights, I had to stifle a giggle. I would expect to see them worn by cavers or miners, but it seemed a bit out of place at the farm. One of my friends has a bit of a lazy streak and apparently had decided that there was no need to carry a flashlight when one could be worn. He’d wear his light on an evening stroll through the woods or, indeed, for any excuse he could find.

Granted, pride in my appearance at the farm went out the window a long time ago when function won the battle over fashion. I was unafraid of appearing “dorky” as long as I was comfortable. For example, one winter I was having a lot of trouble keeping my feet warm and dry. I tried several different boots, socks, etc. My rubber boots kept my feet dry but were too cold no matter how many pairs of socks I wore. I had a warm pair of hiking boots which, though allegedly weatherproof, still allowed my feet to get wet, then cold. In desperation, I tried putting on several plastic shopping bags before slipping on the boots. My moisture barrier worked and that was all it took to sell me on wearing them for the rest of that winter.

I was a bit embarrassed on a few occasions when I had to run to the store or another public venue between chores, wondering what people would think – it was impossible to completely hide the bags without decreasing their effectiveness and they peeked over the tops of my boots. It has always seemed silly to me to take the time to change clothes and footwear for a run to the store just to return and take more time changing back to work clothes, thus I’ve learned to deal with the occasional stare or wrinkled nose. I have, however, long since invested in a good pair of insulated Muck Boots, soooo warm and wonderful, so plastic bags will be an emergency measure only. Oddly enough, the inside of my beloved boots are "don't shoot me" orange... why exactly is that?

Speaking of embarrassing apparel, I now swear by those one piece insulated zip up suits. They keep me toasty warm no matter how cold it is. I have splashed water on those suits and walked around wearing a coating of ice, toasty warm inside! My city slicker friends refer to it as my ":serial killer suit." Not sure why...

Got a little off track there. Anyway, I was reluctant to try one of the headlamps. When I first moved to my farm, Equutopia, 10 years ago, I was new and inexperienced at farm management, a single girl trying to
Dark Woods Dweller
make a go of it with little spare time and very limited financial resources. Unable to afford an ATV, I was hauling hay down to my pasture in a wheelbarrow, flashlight tied to the hay bale unless I was lucky enough to have a full moon on that particular evening. The hill was steep and rutted, the wheelbarrow bounced everywhere and the flashlight was often jarred loose. The return trip uphill was even worse, trying to hold a handle and the light in the same hand while contending with the panicky feeling that something or someone was looming in the dark, waiting until I’d almost reached safety to spring their attack - the same feeling I’d had as a child climbing the basement steps waiting for that hand to close on my ankle. I no longer haul hay down the hill in a wheelbarrow, but it occurred to me that a headlamp would have been really handy back then. These lights are also fantastic when tending to a horse’s wound or bandaging a leg or any other such situation when both hands are needed and no extras are available.

Most are familiar with the inherent value of duct tape and twine and keep both handy at all times, so I won’t elaborate too much on these items but to say that I use them most often for fence repair, hanging buckets and temporary blanket repair. Few may know the handiness of keeping a few bit guards or other thick, flexible rubber pieces around – if your copper pipe springs a leak, a small piece of this rubber and a hose clamp can prevent a flood. Thick rubber bands such as those found binding the broccoli in the produce section of your local grocery store make excellent emergency replacements for the bands on childrens’ safety stirrups.

Farm essentials.

During the winter months, when the occasional snow blankets the ground and makes wheelbarrow locomotion nearly impossible, a childrens’ flat plastic sled works wonderfully for moving hay bales, muck baskets and the like. Just beware of the downhill slopes – momentum is not your friend if you happen to be standing in front of your loaded sled. I turn the sled around and let it slide downhill backward so that I can control its speed (yes, I learned this lesson the hard way after being the victim of a hit and run by a sled loaded with hay bales).

There are countless other improvisations one can make use of on a farm – as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Please remember when trying something new that safety should be your first consideration – if something looks dangerous, it probably is – keep thinking and find another way.