It almost always turns out that the first harvest time on our farm is around July 4th. Making hay when the sun is shining is more than a cliché, and when that dry, sunny weather comes it’s time for the lightning bolt.

The day when all the bales have to come from the field is always epic, often working late into the evening to bring the last bales or loose hay that did not make it into the baler. We have our first hay harvest processed into round bales, and if they stand too long in the field, the grass beneath the bale is killed by asphyxiation. No! So Kara loads them with the skid steer loader onto hay wagons, which Mom and Steve drive into the barn yard to unload them on the slope behind the woodshed, where we stow them for winter feeding.

Even then, the task is still ongoing, because now it is time for the post-hay-making celebrations. Willow and haygrasses are a pretty magical ecosystem that, if left undeveloped, can turn into a biodiverse permaculture. Take a square meter of our hayfields and pastures, and there are at least a dozen species of plants living there – from various grasses to clover, wildflowers, and more. And under the green, a handful of earth contains more microbes than people who have ever lived on this planet.

After haying is a time to feed this ecosystem. When the grass is cut, the willow plants peel off their longer root hairs to save energy and recover. This is a feast for the microbes that break down the decaying matter and produce sugar, which then feeds other microbes and insects while fixing carbon. This is carbon that was extracted from the air and is now stored in the soil – a process that provides the largest carbon banking system available to reverse global climate change.

The howl is of course an important rainy season so the plants don’t shock or burn out during their recovery period, and it’s also a good time to add nutrient-rich humus. This mimics what happens in the pasture, where the grasses are cut by the ruminants (sheep, cows, goats, bison, etc.) grazing on them. While they are grazing, they also poop copiously in the pasture.

This feces not only serves to break down as humus and bring nutrients into the soil, but also acts as a bolus of microbial bursts from the animal’s intestinal flora. Each of us humans and all animals host more microbes than we have cells in our body – so we are ecosystems too.

These grazers’ hooves trample the dung into the ground, and the amazing regeneration process continues when the animals move on fresh ground (or moved by the farmer) and the pasture can regrow.

In a hay field, where the grass is harvested and dried for winter feeding, the animals are not there to chew, poop or stamp on the field and call it good. NPK (chemical nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus fertilizers) actually burn the microbes and make the soil sterile. It is exactly the opposite of what happens to the soil flora when animals graze.

We have huge compost heaps on our farm – heaps that are much bigger than our house. This is not the kitchen waste (all of which the pigs like to consume), but from our deep winter bedding packages from barns and stables. In winter the animals cannot be out in the pasture because the snow is too deep, so they lie in the barn and eat the hay we have stored for them. At regular intervals we cover the litter with a fresh layer of straw or wood chips so that the animals feel comfortable and do not lie in their droppings. This builds up layer by layer until spring, when we clear out the barns and drag the litter and manure onto the compost heap.

The straw and wood chips are also important in the composting process, as a proper balance of carbon and nitrogen is critical for proper, aerobic decomposition. Over time and with occasional turning, this deep litter turns into rich, black humus. If this is spread on the hay meadows when the grass is tall, it not only flattens the grass, but sometimes the litter stays on top and penetrates the bales. However, right after cutting and baling is the perfect time as the grass is now short and there will be plenty of rain to soak up the nutrients before the second crop hay is made.

Not only is the compost a nutrient and microbe boost, it can also be an important fungus inoculation. More and more studies are examining the complex and critical relationship of fungal rhizomes in nature, including their ability to transport nutrients and break down toxins. We consciously cultivate this process by using wood shavings in our bedding and placing our compost heaps near the edge of the forest, where the fungal spores and rhizomes can easily claim this virgin land before being brought into the pastures and fields.

When we load tons and tons of this black gold into our manure spreader, it’s a good feeling to know that the process is nourishing and healing itself – nourished and nourished by the animals, plants, soil, microbes and fungi that are entrusted to us . It’s time to stock up on some more of that beautiful compost and let them fly.

I’ll see you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. (715) 462-3453