Hay is the main staple of many farm animals’ diets, so working with this food in bulk is a big part of life on the farm, making our annual hay delivery day a pretty major event at the California Shelter. Throughout the year, we rotate the animal herds onto our various pastures so they can eat every last morsel of green grass they can spot. If it is a particularly rainy year, many of the herds can go without supplemental hay as they chow down on rich and nutritious grass. But when the rain ceases in late spring and summer rolls around, the pastures turn golden and the hay barn supply gets low. It then becomes necessary to have a new shipment of this vital foodstuff delivered to the farm.
A lot of preparation is necessary before the semi trucks arrive loaded high with hay, which is cut and baled in northern California. Since, during the California summer, we can feed out up to 25 bales daily (a steer can eat up to half a bale all by himself in one day!), it’s necessary to have a large barn in which to store everything. Not only does the barn house feed hay, but it also protects bales of straw bedding, which cannot fit into the large barn lofts, from the elements. After a rainy winter, the first step for our hay supplier is to distribute the back stock of straw throughout the farm to be used during the summer. After that, the hay from last year’s delivery is moved to the front to be fed out in the first couple of weeks of summer, and the large stacks of the freshest hay are tucked behind it. The entire process is like a giant real-life game of Tetris: the goal is to ensure that everything fits snuggly together in their proper spots so that precious indoor space is used most efficiently.
And, of course, what would be the fun of the game without some obstacles? This year they came in the form of a mother owl and her five babies who took up residence in the barn. The nooks and crannies between the bales make the ideal spot for a nest, and since it is a farm, there is abundant food for the owls to survive on. Guests relaxing on the front porch of the visitor cabin are often startled to see the owls’ swooping bodies and hear their happy hoots as they explore the farm. We moved the owl babies to safety while the forklifts and semi trucks moved around the hay barn, and then put them back once everything quieted down. Luckily, the family now has a new home high in the hay barn rafters thanks to volunteers who constructed nest boxes specifically for them.
After the dust settles, the hay barn is all ready for caregivers and volunteers to throw down the heavy bales and drive them out to the hungry herds. Bales are selected carefully — we use the oldest bales up first, and cut out steps in the tall stacks so the highest and farthest bales can be reached. In this way, hay is stored not only as food for our animals, but as an architectural structure that we construct once a year, and then gradually dismantle as the days pass. In some ways, the hay tower is like a metaphor for life on the farm — it is continually changing, yet at the same time constant and vital.